YOU special report: Would you tell your boss you have mental health issues?
A cult drama has brought this dilemma to primetime TV, but with one in four of us likely to experience a mental crisis at some time, it’s a question we all need to address
By ANNA MAGEE
UPDATED: 07:02 EST, 21 October 2012
She had kept her bipolar disorder hidden from her employer, the CIA, for the entirety of her career as a national security operations officer. Admitting to it would have meant dismissal. But when Carrie Mathison, played by actress Claire Danes in the hit TV series Homeland, was overwhelmed by a destructive mania at the end of series one, she was fired and sectioned as her life unravelled.
Carrie’s situation is extreme, yet a third of women employed in Britain report experiencing mental health problems such as bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – and face the challenge of managing it in the workplace.
Danes’s character – back on our screens now – is a troubled genius. Her flashes of insight and ability to see connections that colleagues can’t are clearly portrayed as the flipside to crippling lows.
Whether having bipolar disorder (where mania or ‘high’ episodes alternate with deep depressions) can bring moments of brilliance and productivity is the subject of debate. Stephen Fry has said his bipolar disorder is part of what makes him such a great writer, and earlier this year research at Lancaster University found that people with bipolar disorder reportedly experienced increased creativity and clarity of thought during manic periods.
Natasha Tracy, 34, who was diagnosed with the condition at 22 and writes a blog, Bipolar Burble, agrees: ‘During a manic episode, I am much more productive.’ But experts warn against glamorising supposed upsides. ‘More often bipolar is highly destructive,’ says Dr Ian Drever, consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital, Woking. ‘Manic episodes are characterised by flitting from one unfinished idea to the next, impulsiveness, overconfidence, overspending and being gruff or rude to colleagues,’ he says.
‘During my last mania, I booked a trip to New York, which I couldn’t afford,’ says Sam, 31, a photographer diagnosed with bipolar disorder six years ago. ‘While I was there, I was on a high, shooting at a festival. I left all my gear and pushed through a crowded field to get a shot. My kit, worth £4,000, was stolen, which stopped me working for six months. When clients rang up to book me I could hear myself being irritable and overbearing, but couldn’t stop myself. One said, “Do you realise who you’re talking to?” and I remember thinking, “I don’t care.”’
‘We send staff on regular “resilience” training days where they learn to spot early signs of mental health problems and manage their moods, stresses – and successes – in healthy ways’
Like Carrie, half of those who experience mental health problems keep it secret from their bosses. Natasha Tracy, who works as a software documentation contractor, doesn’t blog under her real name as potential clients invariably Google her. ‘If they found out I have bipolar, they wouldn’t hire me,’ she explains.
Depression sufferer Ruby Wax, who recently made a documentary for Channel 4 designed to tackle the taboo of mental illness in the workplace, believes telling your boss is a risk. ‘I wouldn’t tell an employer because mental illness still comes with an enormous stigma,’ she says.
When Sonia, 38, developed depression, she was deputy manager of a restaurant and it didn’t occur to her not to tell her boss. ‘I assumed that it would go no further,’ she says, ‘but when I came back after six weeks off, he’d told my team. Once, I wasn’t smiling and he yelled, “Haven’t you taken your happy pills?” I’d worked 80 hours that week and anyone would be not smiling. Any time I was snappy people would say, “Sonia can’t handle it.” They lost all respect for me.’
When Sonia started her current job in administration, she was worried about telling her manager. ‘The contract said I would be having an occupational health assessment, so I called my manager and blurted it all out,’ she says. ‘She said she had had her own experience with depression and couldn’t see it being a problem. It made me more determined to do a great job.’
The stigma is changing, Dr Drever believes, albeit slowly. ‘For every one of my patients who doesn’t tell their boss, another five do and are shocked when they say things like, “I/my brother/my wife had that. Let me know what I can do,”’ he says. In fact, one in four Britons will have a mental health problem in any given year and, according to mental health charity Mind, most of us will somehow be affected by it through loved ones or colleagues’ experiences.