Living with bipolar disorder and working in the healthcare system

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 14. It was uncommon for children this young to be diagnosed with this diagnosis. When I was at my absolute worse, I was unable to see myself accomplishing anything in the future. I couldn’t go a day without misusing a substance or be imagining different ways to end my life. I played the role of the helpless patient. Being white, and from a middle-upper class family, I did have a lot of trust in the system. I thought police officers really had everyone’s best interest, and that I could confide in therapists or social workers. The idea that these providers would verbally judge or stigmatize me was not a concern that crossed my mind.
At the age of 19, I started to stabilize. I found a medication regimen that worked for me and pushed to take care of myself as frequently as I could. Although every day I am reminded of my mental health issue due to the struggles I continue to overcome, I feel as if I am completely transformed. I am a social worker. I started my experience on the macro side of the field at The National Alliance on Mental Illness. As time went on, my work largely became more clinical, meaning that I worked more often with clients one-on-one. The experience of working with clients is fantastic, but the experience of working with other patient’s providers has, at times, been extremely painful.
“Oh, he has a bipolar patient, that is going to be exhausting.” “She’s a preschool teacher! But check this out, she is also bipolar.” “Bipolar people are just out of control.” These are all quotes that I have heard directly from physicians, medical assistants and licensed clinical social workers. The stigma towards folks’ living with bipolar disorder is damaging to these patients. When clinicians speak in this way, they go into interactions with preconceived notions about how the patient will act and how the experience will unfold. Additionally, the stigma that people living with bipolar disorder and working in this profession is also painful. When these comments are made, I feel silenced and internalize their comments.
I want to challenge the stigma of bipolar disorder that is further perpetuated in the healthcare system. I want social workers to be held to a higher standard than they currently are in protecting our clients’ dignity. In order to challenge this stigma, we need to create spaces in institutions where people feel comfortable talking about their mental health diagnoses. We, people with bipolar disorder are at all different points in our recovery. The people who are the ones that are supposed to be advocating for patients with bipolar disorder are often worsening the perception of their patients, behind closed doors. As a person in recovery, moving forward, I will work to speak out about my diagnosis. We must re-humanize those who don’t have a voice in this environment.


Anne is a 23-year-old graduate student at The University of Washington. She is an anti-racist social worker.