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I knew from a very young age that my reactions to things were a little more extreme and a little longer lasting, than others my age.
Both small and large events generated emotional highs and lows, from something as seemingly meaningless as not having the “right” wardrobe as a teenager, to my parents announcing they were getting a divorce when I was 12.
I felt like I was always on an emotional rollercoaster.
But it would take two more decades for me to be formally diagnosed with—and treated for—Bipolar II (BP).
The journey to my diagnosis
As a kid, I was fortunate enough to have both the family support and resources to enter therapy. But towards the end of college and into my mid-20s, I started to use alcohol more frequently—often excessively—to handle emotionally intense situations.
At age 26, feeling hopeless and confused, I began a sober life in recovery and sought counseling for alcohol use disorder (AUD). For the next 10+ years, I was able to navigate life successfully and build an incredible family and career.
When I was 38 years old, the financial pressures of being a father and husband, my mother’s deteriorating health from Alzheimer’s, and my upcoming open heart surgery made me feel completely overwhelmed.
My sobriety, support system, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and other modalities weren’t enough to manage my ups and downs. My therapist introduced me to the idea that I might have a mood disorder.
Several months and two psychiatrists later, I was diagnosed with Bipolar II, with emphasis on hypomania/cyclothymia, at the age of 38. My first thought was, “Wow! What does this diagnosis even mean?”
Learning this was overwhelming, but it also validated the rapidly cycling extreme highs and lows I've experienced my entire life.
What exactly is Bipolar disorder?
Bipolar is a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings. People can alternate between feeling very euphoric, energetic, or unusually irritable (mania, hypomania) or very depressed, sad, or hopeless.
According to the Mayo Clinic, these changes in state can affect “sleep, energy, activity, judgment, behavior, and the ability to think clearly.”
Two-thirds of those with Bipolar have a family member with either Bipolar or unipolar depression, suggesting that the condition may be at least partially inherited. This is true for me. My grandfather was an accomplished biochemist, Nobel Prize recipient, and a member of the Bipolar community.
What it’s like to live with Bipolar disorder
Prior to my current treatment program, I routinely lived in either a heightened or a depressed state, rather than an even-keeled middle ground. My most prevalent state was typically hypomania, which means I experienced the high, energetic side of Bipolar more often.
My hypomanic states included feeling abnormally upbeat and jumpy. I often had increased energy, an exaggerated sense of wellbeing and confidence, unusual talkativeness, and racing thoughts. I was also easily distracted.
As it was in my case, diagnosis can be challenging. Some of the symptoms of Bipolar overlap with adult-onset ADHD or unipolar depression. One study showed that patients who were incorrectly diagnosed with depression waited more than 8 years to be correctly diagnosed with Bipolar disorder.
Finding a medication that was right for me also took time. My care team and I spent four additional years trying a variety of medications, including SSRIs, stimulants, benzodiazepines, mood stabilizers, anticonvulsants, and antipsychotics.
The impact of Bipolar disorder at work
Today, I rely on a combination of talk therapy, medication, and the support of family and friends to manage my BP.
In a work context, I’ve been very fortunate, as I haven’t had any negative feedback regarding my condition. Being Bipolar also hasn’t created havoc for myself or others in the workplace, although that can happen to others who have BP.
That said, I do know that many routine tasks in my role and field are sometimes more overwhelming or difficult to plan for or execute on.
Extensive travel, public speaking, social engagements, and entertaining are experiences that can produce an environment where I may cycle into a higher or lower state, and create additional challenges and stressors for me and my team.
The unique strengths Bipolar employees bring to the workplace
A literature review published in the Journal of Effective Disorders conclude that BP is “associated with the positive psychological traits of spirituality, empathy, creativity, realism, and resilience.”
Another study found that some people with BP felt their disorder was a gift. They appreciated how BP “[amplified] internal states, enhanced abilities, and [increased the] ability to experience more intense human connectedness.”
Personally, I believe that every human being has gifts and brings a unique set of strengths to any team, organization, or relationship. People with BP are no different.
We each have different skills, aptitudes, and experiences. That’s why I try to always work to understand, support, and encourage those around me—and hope that others do the same.
By publicly acknowledging my BP diagnosis, I do run the risk of past employers saying, “Oh, now we understand why Ben was the way he was.” But I also think they would agree that I brought a certain energy to work and helped create an environment that felt inclusive, exciting, and optimistic.
How organizations can better support Bipolar employees
I don’t believe employees who have BP or any other mental health condition should be treated differently than other employees in the workplace.
However, that assumes that the workplace is one where open communication and emotional safety are prioritized at every level of the organization. Fortunately, more and more companies are realizing that vulnerability and openness are assets, not weaknesses.
Employers can make small adjustments to better support Bipolar employees. The International Bipolar Foundation suggests:
- Ensuring employees receive enough physical breaks during the day, especially if they’re working on repetitive or tedious tasks
- Maintaining open communication and listening to employee concerns
- Being open to flexible work arrangements
- Creating opportunities for teamwork
- Supporting treatment
Mental healthcare is just as important as physical healthcare
Bipolar disorder has made me stronger, more resilient, and more empathetic. It’s also made me realize the immense value of having mental healthcare.
We start visiting primary care providers soon after we are born. Why then do we wait until we’re stressed or overwhelmed to seek mental healthcare?
Mental healthcare needs to be preventive and routine, just like physical healthcare. That’s why all three of my children began seeing a counselor after my divorce, at the ages of 9, 6, and 4.
Research shows that early intervention is important, as people in the early stages of Bipolar may be more responsive to treatment. I know that if one of my kids starts to show signs of Bipolar or another mood disorder, they will get the help they need earlier in life than I did.
Fast access to the right mental healthcare for families
One of the main reasons I love Spring Health is that our employee mental healthcare program covers dependents as young as six years old.
The average wait time for a pediatric therapy appointment is 7.5 weeks. With Spring Health, parents can get a therapy appointment for their children as young as six years old in two days or less.
Also, our clinically validated digital assessment pre-screens for over 12 mental health conditions, and guides employees to the right care for them.
It took me four years to find the right medication. Spring Health’s Precision Mental Healthcare approach eliminates this kind of guesswork, so that countless individuals can have the opportunity to receive successful and timely treatment—rather than grinding through life without a proper road map.
Our landmark three-year study found that nearly 70% of participants showed improved mental health, fewer missed workdays, increased productivity, and less likelihood of leaving their job.
Discover the validated clinical outcomes and financial ROI you can experience by providing quality mental health benefits for your employees.