The Struggle: Bipolar Disorder and Working. What’s Going On?

When a person struggles with bipolar disorder, it can often be very difficult for them to follow through with daily tasks and routines that most are capable and used to doing on a daily basis. Holding a job and working is one of them. This can be a huge road block for those who struggle with the disorder mentally, emotionally, and financially.

The fact that many with bipolar disorder cannot work is often judged and constantly misunderstood.  They may hear comments such as, but not limited to:

  • “Why can’t so and so work?”
  • “What is so difficult about going to work?”
  • “What does bipolar disorder have to do with it?”
  • “It’s laziness. There is no reason you aren’t able to work or hold a job.”
  •  “Everyone is expected to work. There is no reason you can’t.”
It is also a fact that those who make such comments are unfamiliar and uneducated about the illness.

In fact, there are many factors that make carrying out daily tasks difficult and strenuous on a bipolar individual. There are many symptoms of the disorder that contribute and that can cause disruption in their daily  lives.

If unfamiliar with bipolar disorder, bipolar is a chemical imbalance in the brain characterized as alternating mood changes (also known as mood swings) of mania and depression. Bipolar is often referred to now as a physical illness and not just a mental illness because it can also affect their lives physically as well. For example, their energy levels which can greatly affect their ability to accomplish and carry out those daily tasks.

During mania, a person living with the disorder may exhibit an increase in energy, excessive or rapid speech, insomnia, spending sprees, irritability, aggression, and an overall seemingly hyper and/or agitated personality.

During depression, an individual living with the disorder may present common depression symptoms such as, a decrease in energy, sadness, withdrawn behavior, aggression, irritability, feelings of hopelessness and/or abandonment (lonely), crying, anxiety, suicidal thoughts or ideations, and negative self-image, thoughts, and thinking patterns.

Even with the mood changes between mania and depression, bipolar individuals also can and do experience some “normal” states which often require treatment of mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and/or anti-psychotic medications from a licensed psychiatrist.

Now this still may raise questions about how these mood changes can affect a person living with bipolar disorder so greatly. With these drastic mood changes, a person who lives with bipolar disorder emotions, mentality, and overall appearance both physically and mentally changes.

In times of mania, the individual may be unusually productive which actually can be very helpful when working a job and completing daily tasks. They may describe these feelings as “I have never been feeling better.” and “life is great!”  After the mania starts to develop and swing into a depression state, the individual may start to feel and appear too overstimulated which can lead into the anxiety, irritability, and aggression. Once the over-stimulation stage occurs, it may suddenly become very difficult for them to concentrate and finish up the task they were currently attending to without becoming frustrated, irritable, and overwhelmed.

In times of depression, individuals with bipolar disorder may feel unmotivated, a decrease in energy levels, an overall sadness, and unhappiness in their lives. Some may describe these feelings and episodes as, “I’m bored with my life.”  “Noting matters anymore.” No one cares about me.” Things would just be easier if I wasn’t around.” There are times where the depression becomes too low to even function at all. With depression, it is common for them to feel apathetic towards life. The feelings of hopelessness, sadness, the negative thoughts/worries, and unusually low energy levels can sometimes result in more serious complications such as suicide.

In a work environment, it can be very difficult to cope with the severity of the symptoms. At work, most people tend to try to be on their best behaviors. Bipolar individuals strive to do the same. When they are at work and are experiencing such severe and sudden changes in their moods and symptoms, it may become way too overwhelming to cope with both the stress of the work, the overall environment (feelings of discomfort and lack of support), and the changes they are currently experiencing within themselves. With all of this happening at once, this can very easily create a recipe for disaster causing the individual to leave or skip work , quit, and/or even result in a termination in employment. When bipolar individuals start repeating the patterns of quitting or being terminated from a job, it may be a good idea to create or turn to a safety net such as SSI, SSDI, or other sources of income/support.

It is very important for those who struggle with bipolar disorder to be properly medicated, have regular doctors appointments, and to ultimately be stable before setting out to work. It is also true that there are many successful working bipolar individuals who can go to work daily. This article may definitely be a not-all statement. Some factors that possibly make it more possible for them to succeed in their work environment would be:
  • The type of job. Something not too stressful and/or something they enjoy doing.
  • The job setting or the environment.
  • Having an understanding employer.
  • The amount of hours or the shifts.
  • Successful, while on-the-job coping techniques.
  • Seeing a therapist and psychiatrist often.
  • Stabilized moods – Having the correct and working medications.

So, what’s the deal?  People with mental illness and bipolar disorder require a little more understanding and support. It’s not that they don’t want to work or because they are lazy, it’s because of a chemical imbalance in the brain that greatly and ultimately affects their daily lives. It can become very frustrating and stressful for the bipolar individual not being able to work when they really want it. It can affect their self-esteem and their personal life as well.  Working is definitely an obstacle for some bipolar individuals, but we’ve learned there is always hope and there are always more tries and options.  Never give up and always believe in yourself.

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