Support or Stigma? Bipolar in the Workplace

During a meeting at work -- especially a long meeting -- it can be tempting to play the psychiatrist. Look around the room and think to yourself, "My boss must be obsessive-compulsive." "Our receptionist has ADHD."

Yet chances are that someone in the company really does struggle with a mental disorder. And for 5.7 million American adults who have bipolar disorder, their illness can have serious ramifications for their careers.

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Bipolar disorder is characterized by episodes of extreme mood swings -- from euphoric or aggressive manic episodes to low-energy depressive states.

People with the disorder often have trouble keeping a job and are 40 percent less likely to be employed than the average person, said Ronald Kessler, a public health researcher at Harvard University.

On the other hand, Kessler said, if treated properly, they can be creative and invaluable individuals. Many highly successful authors, artists and professionals have the disorder.

But coming forward with this information can be a risky career move. While it could help others understand their struggle, it can put their employment in jeopardy. Even worse, for many the fear of being "found out" could affect their decision to seek appropriate treatment.

Coming Out

Steve, who asked that ABC News use his first name only, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a young teenager. For a decade, he worked as a financial adviser with several banks around Boston.

One day, he let it slip.

His wife had just dropped him off at work after an appointment, and when Steve tried to introduce her to a bank manager he worked with, he forgot the man's name.

"I just blurted it out. 'I'm sorry I'm getting shock treatments. I can't remember anything,'" Steve said. His colleagues' reactions were less than encouraging, he recalled.

"I would say that they were afraid of me," Steve said. "They stopped referring their clients to me."

Steve said that eventually his colleagues' attitudes forced him to leave his job.

Symptoms, Secrets and Stigma

People with bipolar disorder face a conundrum at work. If they disclose their condition, they may face damaging stigma like Steve did.

But it often helps to confide in close co-workers, as this could provide a support network. Colleagues "in the know" may even be able to help those with bipolar disorder monitor their moods.

The earlier you catch a relapse into a manic or depressive episode, the earlier it can be stopped, said Dr. Gary Sachs, director of the Bipolar Clinic and Research at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. But very often, people with the disorder have trouble recognizing that their behavior is becoming strange.

Co-workers and friends are often the first to see the signs. The most obvious indication of an oncoming episode is a change in personality.

For a depressive episode, a normally articulate person may not be unable to string together a sentence, said Sachs. He or she may move slowly, cry or otherwise appear very depressed.

For mania, the symptoms can be much more unnerving.

"Someone who's a middle-of-the-road person is suddenly much more animated -- perhaps also revealing more," said Sachs. "You may wonder why you had to know who they were with last night."

Subtle signs might include a change in style of clothing, makeup or the amount of jewelry a person wears.

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