Stigma in the Workplace

classroom-school-desk-chair-class-educationThough I’m sure I’ve experienced stigma without even realizing it, my most memorable experience happened in 2002 or 2003, when I was still teaching as an adjunct (a part-timer) while searching for a tenure-track/full-time position at a 2- or 4-year college. The school where it occurred was my favorite to teach at, even though the commute was about an hour drive there and back.

I was teaching a course on writing research papers. My class met once a week at night, so I had many adult or non-traditional students (like I once was). I also had college-age students. It was a diverse classroom.

One night, I said that I was bipolar. It wasn’t out of the clear blue sky, but I can’t remember what we were discussing that prompted me to bring it up. We didn’t talk about my disease; I just mentioned it.

A student reported this to the new dean of liberal arts, which my supervising professor told me about the next time I showed up for class. She said that the dean’s decision was to dismiss me. I made the announcement to my students, most of whom were angry. They sent e-mails to the dean requesting to keep me on, but unfortunately, it didn’t work. I was glad though, that most of my students had my back.

My supervisor theorized that the dismissal could have been because the dean was new, and didn’t want to cause a ruckus. We also wondered if, because he was Asian, his culture may have had a stigma towards the mentally ill. I’m Filipino-American, and I know that some Filipinos do. Despite my supervisor writing me an excellent letter of recommendation for future employers, I was heartbroken and devastated.

It didn’t even occur to me to take legal action because bipolar disorder, specifically, was not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) until 2008, according to the article “Bipolar Disorder and the Americans with Disabilities Act” on PsychCentral. There was no loophole for me to get out of the situation. I didn’t even know what the ADA was at the time, and even if I could have taken legal action, we wouldn’t have been able to afford it. This incident may also have contributed to the Breakdown.

If I’m ever able to work again, I would let my employers, at least my supervisor, know that I have bipolar. It’s a disease like any other, so I think it’s important that they’re aware. And, of course, to battle stigma.

Have you ever experienced workplace stigma from co-workers because of your mental illness? What about from your employer(s)?

Would you tell your employer or supervisor that you are mentally ill?


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23 thoughts on “Stigma in the Workplace

  1. I haven’t experienced it like you. How unfortunate. I didn’t tell anyone where I worked and they didn’t figure it out. They just stopped liking me after my breakdown, never asked me what was wrong. Apparantly I became unlikeable and didn’t know it.

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      1. They just never understood I was having a mental breakdown for over a year. My personality changed so much, I don’t know how they could not know, since they were suppose to be counsellors. I’m a much different personal now. I’m on medication so I’m past the bad part. Thank you Barb.

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  2. That’s horrible that they did that to you! My last job, I wasn’t on meds yet & I had a small episode. I told my boss I had bipolar disorder. After that, I could feel the stigma in the air. She started treating me differently. I knew I wasn’t going to get promoted because of it. I should have fought it but I decided the job wasn’t important enough to put that effort in to. Long story short, I quit on Christmas.

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    1. I was on meds at the time, and pretty stable. Maybe a little hypomanic, but not full-blown.

      I’m sorry your boss started treating you differently. I naively thought that workplace stigma has decreased by now, but apparently not. Good for you for doing what’s best for you!

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