How to Tell People You Have Bipolar II Disorder: Part 3 – School and Work
Telling People in School or the Workplace
In school and the workplace, you’re entitled to accommodations, and to get these, school and workplace administrators have to be informed to some extent. Whether or not you have these accommodations could mean the difference between success and failure, or even whether a relapse is triggered. It’s quite understandable to have reservations about doing this at work. It’s absolutely possible that making others aware of your illness, or taking advantage of the accommodations you’re entitled to, will result in reduced advancement opportunities due to discrimination. You know better than I do what kind of company you work at.
I managed to somehow graduate from high school, eventually graduate from college, and perform very well in several jobs. I had quite a rough time, took plenty of sick days at work and spent weeks at a time phoning it in in a daze of anxiety, depression, or agitation. I would have been much better off with accommodations in place.
It’s important to ask for these accommodations even if you don’t need them now – once you find yourself needing them, it will be harder to deal with the hassle, and you’ll already be in the middle of your studies or work assignments.
In high school (and before) you’re entitled to accommodations under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
You and your parents should work with the school to make sure that you can get accommodations when you need them – it’s not the same for every person. Hopefully you can also work with your doctors to figure out what accommodations would be helpful.
In a college or university setting, you’re responsible for making the school aware of your need for accommodations, and in some cases requesting the accommodations when you need them. You need to gather medical records and information in order to demonstrate that you have a disability, and draw up a list of accommodations that you will need. You might need accommodations because of your symptoms, side effects from your medications, or to allow for treatments you need. Every school will have a slightly different accommodation policy, but you’ll probably need to approach your advisor, someone in the admissions office, or the disability resource center (if your school has one). The ability to take a leave of absence could be the most important accommodation; others would include deadline extensions for assignments, an individual room during tests to aid concentration, a reduced course load, or allowances for off-campus housing or singles.
Once you’ve figured out who to approach in the administration, go to your meeting armed with your documentation, list of accommodations, and knowledge of your rights.
The perfect time to tell your employer that you have bipolar disorder is your first day of work, or the first day following your trial employment period if you have one. It almost always serves no purpose to mention it in interviews or when discussing an offer of employment. The exception might be to explain gaps in your work history, or if you think your diagnosis might help you get hired – at a mental health advocacy organization, for example. Don’t put it on the top of your résumé.
Otherwise, tell them as soon as you’re diagnosed. While it’s illegal for a company to discriminate against you in the hiring process, that would likely be impossible to prove or even to know. An employer is going to be much more afraid of firing someone due to a disability than of not hiring them.
Now that you can’t be un-hired, you can sit down with Human Resources and talk about accommodations, similar to the kind of conversation you would have with an administrator at your school. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations that don’t create undue hardship for the employer, and that allow you to do your job as effectively as someone without your disability. You might be able to get flexible hours, ensure you have time for medical appointments, work from home part time, and have more flexibility to take time off. It’s essential to go into the meeting with a list of accommodations and a plan, and – often overlooked – to get an agreement with your employer in writing.