Category: Mental Health, Research, Mental Health Awareness Week, mental health initiative, Business, foundation, benefit, diagnosis, symptoms
Our mission is to empower everyone affected by bipolar to live well and fulfil their potential.
An Interview with VERCIDA’S COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER, LOUISA MAGNUSSEN
To celebrate Mental Health Awareness week, hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, taking place from 18-24 May 2020, we decided to take a look at one condition in particular; bipolar. But rather than diving deep into the issues surrounding this illness, we investigated the potential benefits employees with bipolar can bring to business.
There are a lot of misconceptions around bipolar disorder – mainly that it’s almost like a drastic change in the weather, going from happy one moment to sad the next. While bipolar disorder is a mood disorder – extreme highs (manic episodes) and extreme lows (depressive episodes), these episodes can last from weeks to months at a time. And it isn’t just feeling happy or sad. When it comes to mania, a number of symptoms come out to play.
Bipolar disorder is a severe mental health condition. But in recent years it has become the one mental health diagnosis that patients are willing to accept. Research shows that to some people it has actually become “desirable” when compared with other mood disorders.
This could be because of bipolar disorder’s association with creativity. For example, Charles Dickens and Beethoven are thought to have had bipolar disorder. The de-stigmatising effect of considerable media coverage could also be factor. As could its association with successful celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Kanye West and Carrie Fisher.
The fact is most people with bipolar disorder do not enjoy “a heightened connection with the universe”. Bipolar disorder is in fact a very destructive condition with a lifetime prevalence of suicide attempts of up to 30%, which is higher than for any other psychiatric disorder. During a depressive phase with low energy levels, poor concentration and negative thoughts, people struggle to maintain a normal level of functioning, but during their highs they do make connections that others don’t make, they are exceptionally productive and they are often very creative.
The dilemma posed by some employees with bipolar disorder is managing this swing from exceptionally good to exceptionally bad. Individuals with bipolar disorder are sometimes disciplinary nightmares. But employers that have an understanding of the condition are in a better position to avoid the problems and take advantage of the strengths such employees bring to the workplace.
Tom Wootton, a workshop leader and author of The Bipolar Advantage explained that during the lows a bipolar person might not come to work, can be disruptive in meetings, or maybe they violate company policies — all legal reasons for termination. But they’re also valuable.
“The dilemma is not that they’re hard to fire, but that they’re hard to keep,” Wootton says. “The only way to keep them is to accommodate them.” He doesn’t have a pat set of tips to help employers manage bipolar employees. “You’ve got to be creative for each person,” he says.
But one thing is common among people with bipolar disorder. “You can’t cram a bipolar person into a box,” Wootton says, “because they don’t fit.”
Too often the HR department is looking for a list of best practices to get a bipolar person to conform to the rules and policies of a workplace, Wootton says. But the real solution is figuring out how to accommodate a valuable employee’s needs. “A bipolar employee is a major asset you’ll accommodate to maximise on the untapped talent.”
VERCIDA are very lucky to have a member of staff that is diagnosed with bipolar, amongst other mental health conditions, because she brings to the table a fierce, intelligent creativity and an exceptional work ethic. We take five with our very own Louisa Magnussen, Communications Manager, and learn about her experiences with the condition.
So, could you start by telling me what bipolar disorder is?
Bipolar is a condition that causes extreme moods ranging from elevation and sometimes a god-like complex when it's good to crippling depression when low, where a person might go as far as to commit suicide. When I am unwell my mood swings can happen minute by minute, day by day, week by week or month by month, lasting just a few moments to months at a time.
Could you elaborate on the ‘god-like complex’?
It’s a symptom of mania, people can experience god-like invincible characteristics when they’re manic and mania can cause an obsession with dogmatic or existential thoughts. When I was extremely ill I went from thinking I was the devil on a low to thinking I was Jesus on a high – sent here to save the world – mad eh!
What’s the hardest part of having bipolar?
The trickiest part of bi-polar is recognising when you're high and low, because for the person experiencing it, it's just their reality. Everything literally is hopeless or everything is amazing. It's a distorted perception.
The thing that people misunderstand is that a bipolar attack often isn't situational. It doesn't come because you've had a bad day or are unhappy with your life; it can be completely irrelevant to your situation. You can be in the happiest place in the world and be suicidal. That’s the difference. I think a lot of people think they have depression when they have a bad day at work or suffer a bereavement but they might be naturally down or grieving, situationally explainable.
A mental illness is often caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain which is actually a physical problem that needs a physical remedy. Whether that’s a lifestyle adjustment or medication; for me it’s both and I’m happy to say I am very stable these days and rarely experience symptoms I can’t manage.
Let’s talk a little more about your personal experience
For one period in my life I was having episodes when it was happening minute by minute. One minute I'd be euphoric and my heart would be racing. It is actually an amazing feeling and like many people with bipolar I really enjoy the highs. A few minutes later I’d be crying and planning a suicide attempt. Another period I would be up for weeks then down for weeks.
I also have schizophrenia so, when it’s not controlled by medication, I can have audio and visual hallucinations, paranoia, anxiety and panic attacks, which are symptoms that often manifest themselves during heightened emotional states i.e. manic or depressed.
Let's talk about your journey from when you were first diagnosed
I was diagnosed with depression as a child, acute psychosis in 2009, bipolar in 2011, borderline personality disorder in 2015 (which was later confirmed as a mis-diagnosis). And eventually, after ten years of treatment for multiple diagnoses, I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in 2017, which is a combination of bipolar and schizophrenia and finally explained all the symptoms I had experienced since I was a child. It was tricky to find the right diagnosis and even trickier to get me on the right medications that could control both the bipolar and the schizophrenia.
Were there any specific moments that you can remember from any of your manic episodes that you realised something was different or unusual?
Not for a long time. You don't realize when you're unwell, it’s just your reality. My hallucinations are as real as this conversation is. And I find it hard to look at past experiences as I genuinely can’t tell what was real and what was in my head. As a child, I didn’t think I was different. I assumed everyone felt like I did. I've always been an excitable person with tendencies toward a melancholy outlook on the world so as my personality is quite extreme anyway, it's hard to define when I'm unwell and when I’m just happy or sad.
Talk to me about your work experience and how your conditions affect your work
Well, I'm the happiest I've ever been at work.
I’ve been on medication since 2008 and was told after leaving university that I shouldn’t work full time because of the side effects and tiredness that comes with being on a lot of medication. Stress is also my most prolific trigger for relapse so I have been advised not to take on a job that I find too stressful – tough when my dream was to be an investigative journalist.
When I got my first job the only option was to work full time and I was so excited to have been hired straight out of university that I took it but didn’t reveal my illnesses. I kept missing days off work and I took a year’s worth of sick days in about three months. I was on 800mg of quetiapine a day at the time and I kept catching colds and flu. In my review, they mentioned that some days I was their best writer, but I wasn’t consistent. Even though I loved my job I couldn’t offer consistency as my moods were so inconsistent. Eventually I was honest with my employer and I moved to working for them on a freelance basis. Shortly after coming clean they stopped crediting my articles, stopped paying me and ghosted any communications. I was sure it was because they put me in the crazy box. I was too embarrassed to fight them on it so I walked away, ashamed. Then I decided to focus on my business, Wizmedia, and not even try and find another ‘normal’ job as part-time jobs in journalism are so scarce.
Did that experience put you off disclosing your illnesses to your employers?
Absolutely. I used to be deeply ashamed of my conditions. Particularly schizophrenia. It is so little understood and people are terrified of it, so I wasted huge amounts of energy hiding it and have worked for myself for most of my career. I started my business at 19 whilst at uni to give myself a job in case no one else would. At the time, I had a diagnosis of bipolar and psychosis which I experienced symptoms of all through uni. When I took the full-time role, I put the business on the back burner and picked it up again when the job went wrong. I’ve dived in and out of it over the last ten years. It worked some of the time. I would work during the highs and hide during the lows but have always been good at keeping to deadlines so my clients remained unaware. The problem was that whenever the business was going well, I would relapse and become psychotic and paranoid again from taking on too much. Until I found my job at VERCIDA, I thought working alone and for myself was my only option.
How do you manage your conditions at work?
I now have systems in place to reduce stimulation if i’m heading for a high or low or am overwhelmed, I work from home half the week, have Wednesdays off and can change my work hours if I’m having a bad day. I can still work with symptoms I just have to manage them. I might go for a bike ride half way through the day to use up some of my manic energy. I also have to make sure not to review my work when I’m having an episode as my perception is distorted. If I’m low I think everything I do is hopeless.
I’m on lamotrigine and aripiprazole, a mood stabiliser and anti-psychotic, and I try to lead a healthy lifestyle with plenty of sleep, good food and exercise. If I don’t exercise or sleep well my mental health can deteriorate rapidly. I have to work on keeping a handle on things because I can get obsessed with projects and over work so I find down time a challenge. I often work outside my hours and my boss tells me off for it and reminds me to rest. Loving what I do means I have a tendency to want to do it all the time as work generally brings my mood up but it is vital I get enough down time and rest and my manager is amazing at recognising when I need to stop.
What kind of support you feel that you need to help with at work?
Flexibility of hours, work from home initiatives and understanding. At VERCIDA, and for the first time in my life, I can be honest about it and say I can't work today, I'm going to work tomorrow if I really need to.
Having systems and understanding means I actually very rarely have to use them and it goes a long way to keeping me well at work. VERCIDA are incredibly supportive and just knowing that flexibility is an option if I need it reduces the day-to-day anxiety. Working from home sometimes means that if I’m too anxious to travel I don’t have to. I have a lot of autonomy at work, I set my own deadlines and there is an incredible amount of trust that I will handle myself and get the job done. I get great feedback, which helps with my confidence, something I’ve always struggled with, and I know I’m not judged because of my conditions. We actually have a laugh about it sometimes which keeps things light.
What advice would you give to other people with mental health conditions about how to manage at work?
Learn about your condition, learn your triggers and learn how to manage your symptoms. That will help you in and outside work. Don’t waste energy trying to be ‘normal’ and take advantage of the positive aspects of your condition. You might be a very hard worker, highly creative or compassionate. These are common traits of people with bipolar. It’s extremely hard, but try not to be ashamed. It’s not your fault. It’s an illness like any physical one. You wouldn’t feel ashamed of a broken leg, so don’t feel ashamed of a broken head.
All my energy used to go on covering up my reality. Now I embrace it. I’m open with my colleagues about how I’m feeling and I receive absolute support in return. It’s a strange sensation as I’m still not used to being so open but it has normalised my condition and I don’t have to fight how I’m feeling anymore. My manager now recognises the signs that I’m heading for a low or high and will tell me to take it easy and not over work. When I am high I can be incredibly productive and some of my best work is done when I’m in that heightened state of creativity, but we have to watch that I don’t overdo it and tire myself out.
If I become unwell I have a ‘stop, drop and roll’ policy. I stop whatever I’m doing, drop onto the sofa and roll myself in a blanket to calm myself down. With bipolar your senses can be heightened and over stimulation can lead to panic attacks and anxiety. Sit with the lows, they will pass, don’t fight them or ask ‘why am I feeling like this’, as often there is no reason. You have a disability. Find a job that plays to your strengths with an employer that understands you and try not to enjoy the highs too much!