"It's the illness, not the person": Navigating the job hunt with bipolar disorder

May 10, 2023

6 mins

"It's the illness, not the person": Navigating the job hunt with bipolar disorder
Christine Wilson

Christine is a writer based in Toronto, Canada.

We’ve all felt what it’s like to ride the waves of life, experiencing moments of joy interspersed with challenging times. It’s common to oscillate between high and low emotions, but when your moods feel extreme, impact your life, and make it difficult to carry out everyday responsibilities, could something bigger be going on? Sometimes this shift between highs and lows is casually dismissed as being called ‘bipolar’, but bipolar disorder is a very real condition, affecting approximately 5.7 million American adults.

Bipolar disorder is described as a mental health condition that causes someone to fluctuate between intense high states of being (also described as mania) and depressive moods, which, depending on individual situations, can affect people’s relationships with others, overall well-being, and physical health, and their capacity to work. One study from the National Library of Medicine suggests that the employment rate among people with bipolar disorder has been estimated between 40% to 60%.

Catherine Stratta’s story

For insight from someone who has dealt with bipolar disorder for much of her life and how it impacted her career, we spoke with Catherine Stratta from Move Beyond Bipolar. Stratta is an international coach and speaker with 48 years of lived experience with bipolar disorder. She coaches and supports individuals with bipolar disorder and their families, friends, and supporters. In the workplace, her coaching is directed at managers and employees to promote understanding of the condition, enabling managers to fully relate to employees with bipolar disorder and to talk through accommodations that can be helpful to create a working environment where employees can flourish, enjoy their work and contribute fully. She also coaches individuals to bring out their best when working for an organization. Stratta also speaks regularly at Mental Health First Aid courses, giving participants a first-hand experience of someone with a bipolar diagnosis.

Here, in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, she shares her story and advice on how to navigate the job hunt and the world of work with a bipolar disorder diagnosis, whether or not you should disclose your diagnosis to your employer, and what accommodations you can ask for to ensure your success.


The first signs of bipolar disorder

Stratta’s story started with mood swings from 12 years onwards. Academically, she did well for herself and even got into medical school. However, Stratta would struggle with on-and-off stints in the hospital, with what she thought at the time was depression. “At one point, I spent about nine months in the hospital, and when I came out, I had to take a psychological exam to get back into medical school. I passed, then I worked another year and became depressed again,” she says. “I felt so frustrated. I went to medical school to become a doctor so I could help people with mental illnesses. I knew how important it was from my own experience.”

Stratta was being treated with antidepressants, but they weren’t working—which would make sense when she was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder, not depression. Eventually, Stratta managed to secure an appointment with a consultant psychiatrist for a proper assessment. “At that time, there were not enough psychiatrists, and we used to see many different junior doctors, often locums, even though continuity is crucial for people who struggle with mental health,” Stratta notes.

It was the first time Stratta felt seen and saw the light at the end of the tunnel. “The consultant said to me, ‘I can see you’ve had a really hard time.’ And I just thought, wow, someone recognizes what I’ve been going through,” she shares. The psychologist prescribed Stratta lithium, a common treatment for bipolar disorder. Within about four weeks of going on the drug, she felt incredible. “I hadn’t been stable since before I was 12. This drug works well for some and not for others. We’re all individuals, but it worked very well for me,” she notes. Finally able to operate on a level plane, Stratta went into clinical research and was able to maintain a stable career for 25 years.

Experiencing bipolar in adulthood and finding a way forward

Fast forward through three decades of relatively smooth sailing, Stratta underwent a series of blood tests that showed her kidney function had been diminishing, prompting her doctor to take her off the lithium. “My last dose was on March 1, 2018, and I thought that because the mood swings I experienced were when I was 12 and now I was going through perimenopause, that coming off of it I would be normal again,” she says.

However, that wasn’t the case. Completely off medication, Stratta experienced suicidal ideation, rapid weight loss, and was feeling like a shadow of herself. “It was devastating,” she says. “I ended up with a different prescription after some trial and error, but I was going through a tough time in life, which didn’t help. My mom passed away in December 2018, and I was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2019.”

Stratta decided to open herself up to new approaches to healing in addition to her medication, working with a psychologist who was also a qualified medical doctor. They worked together and she encouraged Stratta to research topics such as mindfulness, acceptance, vagal nerve activation, and EFT. They also worked on grief, how to manage her emotions, and how to deal with stress. “She worked in a kind of person-centered way. After seeing her for a year, she signed me off, and I thought, I’ve got a wealth of information here. I’ve been through all these challenges—how can I make the best of what I’ve experienced and help others? I have something to give.”

Leveraging her newfound knowledge and experience, Stratta started her consulting business, Move Beyond Bipolar, in 2021 to help both people living with bipolar and their loved ones to understand what someone with bipolar disorder is going through and how to best support them.


Should you talk about bipolar disorder in an interview or with your employer?

If you’re living with a mood disorder like bipolar that impacts your daily life, you might wonder how open you need to be about your situation. While each situation is unique to the person experiencing it and their level of comfort with living with bipolar, Stratta suggests that if you feel it’s under control, consider keeping it private, particularly during the interview phase. “It depends on your situation and the sort of episodes you get. If you are stable enough to be looking for work, then I would assume you are not getting huge fluctuations,” she states.

Stratta points out that despite mental health being more commonly and openly discussed, discrimination toward those with mental health issues still exists. “People are supposed not to discriminate. However, it’s very easy for someone with a lot of candidates in front of them to think, ‘Well, if I do go for this person and they’re ill, then what? And it’s not personal—employers have to look after their businesses,” she says.

But what about when you’re already in a role? Again, Stratta suggests using your best judgment and only confiding in coworkers or a manager you trust. “I’ve told people who I’ve got on well with and who I know are open-minded. There are some advantages to telling your employer while you are stable, so if you have an episode, then at least they are forewarned.”

Questions you can ask a prospective employer if you’re living with bipolar disorder

If you are living with bipolar disorder and starting to look for work, there are ways you can determine whether a role or company will be right for you without having to disclose your diagnosis. Here, Stratta outlines some key things to consider and what to inquire about if you’re interviewing for a new role.

Consistent schedule

Stratta notes that those with bipolar disorder tend to have inconsistent circadian rhythms and that adequate sleep is vital to their mood. She recommends against positions that require a lot of transatlantic flying, working different time zones, shift work, or early morning commutes. “The best way to anchor your circadian rhythms is to have a consistent waking time, including weekends,” she notes.

Having a quiet space to work

Because it’s often more difficult for people living with bipolar disorder to concentrate, spaces without much noise or other people are best. Stratta notes a work-from-home option can also be beneficial for this reason.

Social expectations

Inquire about office gatherings, networking, or events where you might be expected to go socialize with your team. “Often at these events, there’s a lot of alcohol. You shouldn’t be drinking on some of the medications for bipolar,” Stratta says.

Frequency of change

Stability is a key component to thriving with bipolar disorder, so fast-paced environments and high turnover rates may be triggering.

Time off

Ask about personal wellness days should you need to take one, Employee Assistance Programs, and anything else related to health and well-being that can support you.


What to know about people living with bipolar disorder

When it comes to understanding bipolar disorder, education and compassion are key. “A lot of times people just don’t really understand it, and I think this has to do with the fact that the culture portrays bipolar in a very scary way,” Stratta points out.

But with proper medication and support, it’s very possible for those living with bipolar disorder to have a healthy and normal life. For those who might have a loved one or know a colleague with bipolar disorder, Stratta says to not let their diagnosis get conflated with who they are. “It looks like we’re behaving oddly, but we are not behaving oddly because we want to. That’s just how our brains are working at the time. The behaviors may seem inexplicable at first, but realize that it’s the illness, not the person.”

As for someone living with bipolar disorder’s greatest strength in the workplace? Resilience and empathy are the first two things that come to Stratta’s mind. “People with bipolar are very resilient because we’ve had to be. We’ve gone through an awful lot and we are often very sensitive to others’ needs. We can be an incredible resource to other people.”

Photos: Betty Zapata for Welcome to the Jungle

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