Health and Fitness

I Told My Job Interviewer I’m Bipolar. Should You, Too?

Is it okay to tell your boss about your mental health issues?
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“I’m bipolar.”

The words escaped my lips before I realized it. “Clinically diagnosed, I mean.” I made it a point to clarify this wasn’t just a faux pas of the often-maligned disorder.

I hadn't planned on revealing it at the interview, but I did. I was asked how I handled stress, and I didn’t know how else to answer it. I handled stress differently than most people. It took me three years post-diagnosis to fine tune specific stress-managing skills that include but are not limited to reaching out to family, regular therapy, avoiding triggers, identifying episodes, mindfulness exercises, maintenance medication, and more.

My job interviewer, Myrza Sison, then editorial director of Summit Media, didn’t miss a beat. She asked questions about my disorder and I promptly answered them, as though I had readied myself for this moment.

My parents, well-meaning as they were, had discouraged me from telling any job interviewer that I was bipolar. Still, in my heart, I knew I wanted to say it. I had to. It was my truth. I was still bothered by that one job questionnaire in the past that had asked me to write down all my chronic illnesses and I only wrote down my allergy to shrimp (which wasn’t chronic after all, as I’m allergy-free now).

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“You’re not alone,” Myrza told me. She said that in the creative industry, mental health issues are common. When I asked her how I did at the end of the interview, she assured me that my disorder would not affect her decision. When the call came saying I got the job, I didn’t just cry tears of joy, I sobbed! I am bipolar, after all.





Photo by UNSPLASH.
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The stigma exists. You don’t have to fight it if you don’t want to.

To no one’s surprise, the Philippines isn’t winning awards as the most “woke” nation. There is a strong stigma against mental health. Although we do have a mental health law, it hasn’t been fully implemented. Declaring your mental illness poses a risk. It may affect your job interview or you may lose your current job. If you’re considering opening up about it at your current workplace, you may benefit from understanding the company culture to gauge how your news will affect your employment.

You don’t have to tell the whole company you have mental health issues.

If you want to keep it in relative secrecy, or you’re simply a private person, you can still open up about your mental health to someone at work. According to psychiatrist Dr. Robert D. Buenaventura, the best people to open up to are your HR manager and your direct supervisor, as they can be your best allies. It doesn’t, after all, have to be one big announcement.

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To be completely honest, I was operating with my privileges. I have an emotionally and financially supportive family. I even had a small baking business to fall back on—I knew that as much I wanted the job, I wasn’t in any proximate danger of dying or becoming impoverished should I not get the job.

Consider your situation. You don’t technically have to announce your mental health issues. My psychiatrist, Dr. Katherine Camus, told me that generally, she would tell her patients that disclosing their diagnosis at work is completely up to them.

What is the state of mental health awareness in the Philippines?

One out of three Filipinos has a mental health problem. In 2000, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that people miss work more often because of mental health issues such as stress and anxiety, than physical illness or injury.

If you’re considering following in my footsteps, here’s a list of how living openly has helped me.

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1| A company’s rejection can be a good thing. 

Jo Ann Rosary Asetre, a career management consultant, says she once had a client who asked her about this scenario: They were interviewing a prospect who had passed all the marks except for one tiny detail: a stud piercing under his lower lip. What should they do?

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Asetre says she told him the company should be upfront by simply asking the applicant if he would be willing to remove it. It could easily a non-issue if they asked. If he wasn't willing to remove it, then that would work as well, as it would be his clue about the company's culture. From there, he could decide if he was a fit for the company. It was better case scenario than having to hire him and then having him quit from the company. 

Think of your mental health the same way. Being open about your mental health issues during a job interview will give you a peek into the company’s attitude toward mental health. It will show you if your values are aligned with theirs. Sometimes, a well-meaning company can also say no.

I interviewed for an administrative position with a renowned pharmaceutical company more times than I can remember. I always reached the last interviewer and the verdict always came out negatively. I’d often get the hint during the interview itself. Although it seemed I got along great with them, they were generally afraid my bright, vivacious, and bubbly personality would be suffocated in the job position. I’m actually very thankful that they made the right decision. Being honest about yourself will make it easier for you to look for a company that suits you.

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2| You will get into the right organization.

If the company you interviewed for was turned off about your confession, then you might as well head for the door. Before landing a job at Summit Media as an editorial assistant, I worked in a major studio in the local movie industry. It sounded great on paper: I was living the dream. I saw celebrities regularly that I’d gotten used to them. It was my dream job, but I was imploding.

The unstructured wild hours of the film industry were stressing me out more than I could handle. I didn’t have the skills I needed to handle the depressive episode hitting me at full force. I decided to leave for good. Soon after I left, news broke about people dying in the industry due to overwork. A close friend and colleague of mine died by suicide.

According to the WHO, “work is good for mental health but a negative working environment can lead to physical and mental health problems.” A toxic culture that works for most people doesn’t necessarily have to work for you. Sometimes, you just need to leave, learn, and find somewhere else where you’re a better fit. Sometimes, it takes all those experiences, before you find the right job.

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3| You will meet others like you.

When I was first diagnosed, I couldn’t find anyone like me. It felt so alone. When I started telling people about my disorder, something changed. It’s like I turned on the light of my home in an otherwise completely dark alley. People who had the same problems as I began to draw close. We talked about issues foreign to most of my peers.

On my first assignment out of town, a food trip to Pampanga, I met someone who was also bipolar. It was so comforting to meet someone else experiencing the same thing. I’ve mostly lost touch with everyone else on that trip, except that person. Bonding over great times is nice, but friendships born from shared pain is something special.

4| Opening up paves the way for other people living with mental health problems.

Living openly with your disorder is bound to send ripples of change. According to Dr. Camus, most of the people in power who are enlightened about mental health issues are those who have relatives or friends who have mental disorders.

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I am thankful to all the unnamed people living with mental health disorders who opened the doors for me in this industry simply by opening up to people like my boss, Myrza. Living openly can be an agent of change for others.

According to Asetre, people living with mental health issues can educate their companies when they open up. Companies learn how to listen. As Dr. Buenaventura says, with the Mental Health Law still new, “companies are still seeking guidance.”

5| Opening up about mental health will make it easier for you to ask for help.

If you’re working with your direct supervisor, you can sit down about your working style, your triggers, or your regular need to go to an appointment. You and your direct supervisor can work together in figuring out a personalized system to maximize your performance and development.

If you’re talking to your HR manager, perhaps you can tailor your benefits. Some companies employ flexible benefits that allow them to cater to individual needs. If your company is not open to helping you in these ways, you can ask help from a colleague, a peer, or maybe even get a career coach.

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Stigma about mental health can be dangerous. "Stigma is what kills," says Nana Nadal, mental health awareness advocate. "Once you’re not afraid of it, you’ll see that there are resources around you."





Photo by UNSPLASH.

6| You get to have a valid excuse.

If your company knows you live with a disorder, it’s easier to take a sick leave because of it. Don’t get me wrong, you’re not supposed to use mental health as an excuse for incompetence. However, you can use it as a valid excuse just as you would if you had a cold or a fever.

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By using it as a valid excuse, you’re also normalizing it. Having mental health issues is hard enough, don’t make it harder by being ashamed of it. Like all health-related problems, though, it also comes with the same caveats. First, according to your HR policy, you’ll have to provide a medical certificate—this you can get from a general practitioner physician who is easier and more affordable to meet. Second, as you would take antibiotics or cold medicine, assure your company that you’re doing your best to recover.

Remember that your mental health is just as important as your physical health. It may be an invisible disorder, but it’s there nonetheless. If you’re asking for your company to take your mental health seriously, then you need to take your own mental health seriously by taking care of yourself. Sometimes, this means taking a breather.

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Why opening up about my mental health worked for me.

Repressing and keeping huge secrets have never done my mental health any favors. I told my job interviewer that I’m bipolar simply because I couldn’t live with a secret. Living with a disorder is hard enough; why add another burden?

I decided I wasn't going to die for my job when I spontaneously confessed my disorder to my interviewer. I’m not going to die for a company or even a dream job. I decided to take a pass on certain jobs so I can live a healthier and happier life. For me, that means living openly.

When you start living openly about your disorder, you will get doubters, but every now and then, you’ll also get people who call you “brave.” To be honest, though, I haven’t done a lot of brave things lately. I really just had to be brave once, when I made that decision to open up, and it’s allowed me to live freely every day since.

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This article was inspired and informed by the event Mind at Work: Mental Health in the Workplace last September 14, 2019, at The Mind Museum, which holds events by Café Scientifique, a worldwide movement that helps spark conversations about specific science topics.

Are you or someone you know having thoughts of suicide? For free and anonymous phone counseling, call Crisis Line By In Touch at +632 893 7603, +63 917 800 1123, or +63 922 893 8944 or the National Center for Mental Health’s Crisis Hotline at +63 917 899 8727 or +632 989 8727.

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