How do I reenter the job market after dealing with bipolar?
July 17, 2010 12:34 AM   Subscribe

I need a job and just found out I'm bipolar. Problem is, my mental disorders has caused me to crater every job I've ever held. Do I come clean about my job and school history, or should I start with a blank slate?

Background: Early 20's, former student at one of the leading universities in the world. Took a break once my depression started severely interfering with my performance. I went from being involved in my studies and other activities to being a shut-in that was barely able to maintain his personal hygene.

This sort of cycle has played out throughout my life. I've been fortunate enough to land a few decent jobs, but none of them have ended well. I usually end up going MIA not too long after being hired. The longest I've been able to keep a job is a month, which means that I have no references to speak of.

It's been an incredibly difficult and frustrating journey for both myself and those around me, but I think I'm finally making progress. After years of being diagnosed with depression, I was recently reevaluated and told that I actually have bipolar disorder. Assuming this is right, I should see improvement in short order, and helps explain why my current antidepressants haven't been effective.

My family is supporting me financially right now, but I've managed to run a significant personal debt while in school. That's the primary reason for wanting to get to work ASAP.

Given all of this, what would be the best course of action?

TL;DR version: Mental disorders have wrecked my academic and professional careers so far. I'm starting to get better, and need to get back on the job market. Should I explain my personal history, or start anew?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You need to submit yourself with psychologist or psychiatrist to ask for advice. It is nice that you are having a thought to be financially stable through acquiring a job. However, you need to have and organize mindset and be prepared to face the real world.

If you were able to correct that mentality that you have right now, you will definitely a lasting work already. All you need to do is to be open minded and be optimistic in approaching experts' assistance. That would be for your bright future as well.
posted by JohnD at 1:59 AM on July 17, 2010

Wait, I'm guessing "starting anew" just means not mentioning part of your job history, but I'm not sure... I mean, you're not talking about creating a new identity for yourself? Just want to get this straight.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 2:24 AM on July 17, 2010

First of all I think you are far too young have really wrecked anything. In other words, you're still young enough that a little deviation from a clear career (academic or otherwise) path is not seen as a problem at all (indeed, it's the norm), and so I would recommend strongly that you not share the news with the world (i.e. with potential employers, academic advisors, etc) that you have been diagnosed as bipolar.

Employers tend not to "do" mental illness well, and since it's quite easy for you, when asked, to chalk up your current situation to youthful indiscretion, etc., I would take the path of least resistance here: there's no reason to alarm potential employers, etc., with this kind of thing.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 2:35 AM on July 17, 2010

To paraphrase Richard Feynman(and he was quoting someone else): You're not responsible for what people expect from you; they're the ones that came up with the expectations. In other words, if a company hires you over a bunch of other people who presumably(probably!) omitted their own bad stuff from their resumes, then why question whether you deserved to be hired? The company chose the best it could.

Though I do see what you're asking: "is it too Machiavellian to leave it out?" Ehh, I don't think so.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 3:01 AM on July 17, 2010

I think you should not tell them. "Bipolar" is a label that connotes different things to different people but generally has an unfavorable stigma. Telling your new employer may garner you some legal protections, but I think it will cost you in your efforts to assimilate to the work culture. Not only would you risk your new co-workers treating you differently because of the label, but you could inadvertently sabotage yourself -- ie see yourself as the mentally ill person in the office, as an outsider. If you become overwhelmed by the work and the challenge of getting to know and being known by the others there, you may decide then to tell them that you are struggling emotionally, but I do not think you should share the bipolar label. Most people are not ready to understand the complexities of mental and emotional health, unless you are committed to being a positive representative for bipolarity, sharing the diagnosis will only generate another obstacle. People are not naturally inclined to empathize with such things -- they are frightened of it. Start the job and know that you can make it work this time. Remember to eat really well and exercise and let yourself take little breaks throughout the day. Post on here if you are suffering. Your suffering is human, not merely symptomatic.
posted by turtlewithoutashell at 3:30 AM on July 17, 2010

Oh. I see you're still looking for work. Sorry for reading hastily. I think you should accentuate the good stuff on your resume, and concentrate on finding something that you can do in order to build it up.
posted by turtlewithoutashell at 3:35 AM on July 17, 2010

Leave it out. Mentioning it will send your resume straight to the circular file.

For what it's worth, I'm not bi-polar, and have managed to crater quite a few jobs over the years. Probably related to anxiety, but everyone's got issues. If it wasn't that, it would be something else. I've dealt with it by becoming a professional temp. When people ask me why I tell them, "I like the variety."

When you can't talk about your resume convincingly, having an agent to represent you can be a Godsend. Some temp companies are even starting to offer health insurance. But you do need to maintain a basic level of responsibility to keep even a career as a short-term temp (ie try to finish the assignment before going AWOL; give heads up to your agent before prematurely terminating an assignment; impress the Hell out of them when you're able, and finish things in a way that don't leave them with a bad report on you).
posted by Ys at 4:02 AM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I suggest you shift your focus to building a resume with references. You can apply for jobs while doing this. If you get a job with your resume (however you end up presenting it), great. If you spend six months with no responses from employers, at least you'll have a recent track record of good work, a reference or two, and probably some connections.

Many nonprofit organizations staff a variety of positions with volunteers.* Ideally, you'd find some that are relevant to your desired field of employment and volunteer for a position that requires skills similar to those you would use in your desired job. Less ideally, but more likely, you'll find openings for menial and unglamorous positions. Offer your regular services as a volunteer in either case.

Regular here means you're showing up a few times a week at least. You're unlikely to find a nonprofit that will be able to take you on as a volunteer for 40 hours a week, so you can probably split your time among two volunteer jobs and your job search.

Be completely honest with the nonprofit about your past, your illness, and your effort to build good references to aid in your ongoing job search. They aren't taking any risk with a volunteer, and many nonprofits are specifically committed to helping people in this kind of situation. It may even open some more doors.

Maybe you'll get lucky and that menial volunteer job will open up other volunteer opportunities, or maybe you'll get really lucky and it will open up employment opportunities with the nonprofit. Whatever happens, be helpful and reliable. Once you've volunteered at a place long enough that your supervisor can provide an informed, positive reference (say, three or four months), ask your supervisor if he or she is willing to be a reference and move on to another volunteer job at a different nonprofit. Repeat until you have a paying job.

For what it is worth, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder several years ago. I was fortunate that I had access to low-cost psychiatric treatment when my mood swings threatened to irrevocably interfere with my life, and I was fortunate that that treatment was, and continues to be, effective. I am happy, healthy, and living the life of my dreams, not because the lithium magically makes it so, but because the lithium removes a major impediment to me making it so. I hope you will have similar luck.

That said, stigmatization of and discrimination against people with mental illnesses are very real facts of life. I have not disclosed my diagnosis to any of my employers, but I have not had any gaps on my resume that required explanation. If pressed, perhaps you can simply say that you had a serious illness that prevented you from finishing school or working, but that it has since been treated successfully?

*Don't volunteer to do work for a for-profit institution. You're not likely to get anything but exploited, and there may be laws against it anyway.
posted by Marty Marx at 4:03 AM on July 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Time off for treatment and recovery, also a modified schedule, can be a reasonable accommodation to a disability such as bipolar disorder. In the future, if you need time off due to your disability, it is important to communicate with your employer rather than to go MIA. Sometimes the employer's knowledge of the employee's need for an accommodation for a disability will be implied, but to guarantee the legal right to an accommodation such as time the employee should communicate explicitly with the employer about the disability and need for time off or other accommodation.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:51 AM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Parts of this sound very much like me; I was diagnosed with depression for years, it turns out I have bipolar, there are some times in my life where pretty much everything (grades, work, relationships, ABSOLUTELY hygiene) suffered from it.

I would recommend NOT telling people that you have bipolar until you get to know them and are sure of their reactions. The reason for this is not shame; you shouldn't be ashamed of having bipolar, any more than you should be of having a broken leg. It's not your fault. If anything, you should be proud of yourself for working to get it treated and moving your life in the direction you want. God knows this is a very difficult thing to do and I applaud you for it, and so should everyone.

The problem is that people will often treat you differently after they find out you have bipolar, or at least think of you differently, unless they're already very comfortable with you or have a good understanding of bipolar and its treatment. It means they don't take you on your own terms; if you get upset, it can be dismissed as just "being crazy". "Don't mind anonymous" (they might say) "s/he's got bipolar". And there is a decent chance they will be patronizing and VERY understanding but not take you seriously. Also, hiring anyone is a BIG RISK; many places and employers may be very sympathetic, but feel that it's a chance they just can't take. Although they may feel upset with themselves and want to give you the job, they are responsible for hiring choices and if there's a risk that you could damage the company or reflect badly on them, hiring you is probably not a choice they're going to make if they have any doubts about this.

I do try to make sure that I have at least one person at work who I tell after I am a little more comfortable with the environment because that means I can check in with someone if necessary, but I definitely don't this until I am sure that I can trust them and that they will be understanding (at my current job, I am fortunate enough to work with an office manager whose best friend has bipolar, so she is understanding and still takes me seriously and also knows that I can and will function at work but that if I need to talk to her for a little while that's what's up. Also she's awesome and we get along really well, so that's good).

So, as I say, I would NOT mention it in any interviews; don't be ashamed of it, but make sure that people have a sense of you and your identity before you get labeled "that guy/woman with bipolar". It's not fair that this happens, but it does and so unfortunately you have to take steps to demonstrate preemptively to people that bipolar is not your full identity.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:58 AM on July 17, 2010

I also have a mental illness (a panic disorder) which affects my ability to work a "normal" schedule.

I asked a couple therapists and a job counselor about what to say to my work. They gave me this advice:

1) Do not bring it up in an interview (the interviewer wants to know about your best qualities and how you can bring them to your job and not your mental illness). Even though you have rights as a person with a mental disability (key word: disability), there is a lot of stigma towards mental illness and the interviewer's bias may prevent you from getting a job.

2) Once hired, you can meet with your boss and explain to them your special needs. They will often file it in Human Resources, which can be referenced to in the future if you are having problems with attending work. I was advised by my counselors to wait until a time in which my disability interfered with my ability to work. So, if you have to miss work due to your mental illness, explain to your boss the reason why you are leaving is due to your mental disability. If you tell them your absence is due to your mental illness it is unlikely they will attribute your absences to irresponsibility, which may help with them giving you a good reference if needs be in the future. Also, don't just stop going to work without telling them why. If you explain that you have to leave due to your inability to cope with your work life and your health, they are less likely to give you a poor reference.

3) it is illegal to be fired from a job due to a disability, being fired would be discrimination, and you have legal recourse to fight it.

Although it can be awkward or embarrassing to talk to your employer about your mental disability you must remember not to be afraid to stand up for yourself. You have rights as a person with a disability.

From my own personal experience, I have never been stigmatized by co-workers or bosses that I have told about my mental illness. And I have worked in two different offices. People have actually been very caring and supportive of me. That's not to say that I haven't been discriminated against before by other people. I do know that people with mental illness are treated poorly (often disability groups do not even include mental illness as a disability), but I see slow changes to this with more mentally disabled people being transparent about their disorders and standing up for ourselves.

I think Marty Marx's advice is great. I have done a lot of volunteer work, which makes my resume look outstanding, and volunteer organizations have been very understanding/lenient with my absences. They are often very happy just that you are helping them out with their workloads for free. So, if you need to vamp up your resume with awesome references, I think you should definitely follow MM's advice.
posted by angelaas525 at 10:14 AM on July 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

For what it's worth, I'm not bi-polar, and have managed to crater quite a few jobs over the years.

Me too, due to a combination of depression/anxiety and, I'm now finding out, undiagnosed ADD. I didn't start to get my shit together until after I'd turned 30 and had a 10 + year history of job-hopping and squandered opportunities. I dropped out of college twice. I'm 36 now and I have an associate's degree and a decent, professional job with health insurance and a pension. I am not super successful by most standards but for me it is the best I've ever been. I am stable and able to take care of myself independently.

The point is that it's never too late. Just accentuate the positive about your experience when you can, and remember that you never have to volunteer any information. Do not mention your mental health issues at all, both before and after getting a job, because you never know how someone may take it and also because you don't want to fall into the trap of over-identifying with your illness.

You may also, like I had to, need to learn to re-define your definition of success. Don't get discouraged if you struggle to find a job, and beat yourself up about your history. The job you are able to get, at first, may not be such a great job, but even baby steps are steps forward. Take it one day at a time, stay on your medication and follow-up with therapy if possible, and you will be fine.
posted by cottonswab at 11:55 AM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

In my general experience, volunteers (at least the more youthful ones I've had experience with, retirees might be different) are often quite flakey. So if you go with Marty Marx's idea, and go for volunteer work, you can be reassured that if you have to quit abruptly, for whatever reason, nobody will be too offended, because they're used to it. Which also means that if you manage to be dead reliable, you'll stand out.

I'm 99% serious.
posted by Hither at 12:21 PM on July 17, 2010

I would not tell any potential employer that you are bipolar.

I know you want to work, but you might not be able to work steadily. That's what happened to me. I was in my early 20s and kept getting jobs and losing them (quitting or being fired) due to severe bipolar depression. I could have kept with the cycle, but instead I applied for SSDI. I don't know where you're located, but if you're in the US then you can apply for SSDI if the disability is expected to last more than a year (and bipolar will). Once on SSDI, it will be easier to qualify for state vocational rehabilitation personnel who are trained to help disabled people get back to work. One of the most common challenges they work with is spotty work history. Social Security also offers the Ticket to Work, which will pay for education or hook you up with employers who receive tax breaks to hire disabled people.

Now, if your doctors think you can work, you could try a functional resume. You could highlight what you can do and make sure you have a stellar cover letter for each company, showing that you would be a good fit. I hired someone to help me write a resume in spite of my work history and that worked...until I had to quit due to depression and anxiety. That's why I would recommend being sure you can work with a doctor and therapist on your side. I know you need income. It was very stressful on my family too, all those months with no income. 7 months while I waited on Social Security (but then I got a huge check for that).
posted by Danila at 1:15 PM on July 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

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