Almost twenty years on from being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I’m getting pretty good at knowing the signs my mind and body display when they’ve been pushed to the limit. Not being able to stop thinking about work even after I come home at night, a tight feeling in my chest and being so focused on my “to do” list that it’s 5pm before I realise I’ve skipped my lunch-break.
It’s usually around this time that I have to force myself to slow down and – if I can wrangle a meeting-free day – perhaps even take a “mental health day”. Only I don’t ever admit to my manager that it’s a mental health day. It’s an “upset stomach” or a “sore throat” or some other common ailment.
With World Mental Health Day coming up on 10 October, I’ve been thinking about this – and wondering why I have never ever admitted to taking a “mental health day”. It’s not because I’m not allowed to. In fact, it’s clearly stated in my employee handbook that taking a mental health day is a perfectly ok use of a sick day.
So why is it that I don’t take one? Well here it is … three reasons why I don’t take a mental health day:
1. It doesn’t feel like a good enough excuse for a day off work
Flu is catchy and noone wants to share officespace with someone who has an annoying, hacking cough. But stress or anxiety isn’t visible. Noone can see the tight feeling in my chest or the way my mind won’t stop racing. Only I know that this is happening and it’s easy to put on a brave face when I’m at work. As someone with Bipolar Disorder, I have a perfectly good reason to take a “mental health day” if I need one. In fact, if it helps keep me healthy and functioning well, it’s actually a good thing. Much better to take a day to nip stress and anxiety in the bud than let it manifest a few weeks down the track in an episode requiring medication and professional care. Still – when push comes to shove, I’d rather admit to being physically unwell than admit that I need a quiet, stress-free day at home.
2. It might lead to my manager wondering about my mental health
Noone – I repeat noone – wants the person who is responsible for your future promotions, pay rises and performance reviews thinking that you are mentally unstable. I don’t have a problem sharing about my mental illness with friends, family, church groups, readers of this blog, my Twitter followers… yet I draw the line at sharing about it with my direct manager. I don’t want my work performance to be judged on anything except… well, my work performance. Yes, I have Bipolar Disorder, but for 99% of the time, it doesn’t affect what I do at work. In fact, I’ve had less sick days in the past year than most of my team members. I don’t want my manager wondering if I can handle a big project – or whether I’ll be able to cope with a management role. I’m a loyal, hard-working employee – and that’s all I want to be judged on.
3. It’s too embarrassing
I’ll be the first to admit it, the thought of others knowing you have a mental illness is embarrassing. While organisations like Beyond Blue and The Black Dog Institute have done a great job in raising awareness of illnesses such as depression in the past few years, not many people are aware of other types of mental illness – like mania or psychosis. Usually the first reaction people have when I tell them I have a mental illness is to say “Oh, so you have postnatal depression?” Considering my youngest is now almost four years old, I find this a bit odd. But I understand that this is one of the few mental illnesses that people feel comfortable discussing.
When I mention that I have only ever once had a depressive episode – but that stress can lead to my mood doing the opposite, becoming manic – they look a bit confused and then quickly change topics. Rarely has anyone actually asked me what I’ve experienced during an an actute manic epsidode or psychosis. Maybe it’s because the word psychotic has the word “psycho” in it … but in any case, people are still a bit put off when the conversation heads in that direction. With this in mind, I’d rather not have to explain the difference between depression and mania when I call in for a sick day.
So there you have it. Three reasons why someone who has a recognised mental illness and is passionate about mental health advocacy admits to never taking an official “mental health day”. With Australia focused on mental health this week, I hope that this is a stark reminder why we need to keep working together to stop the stigma of mental illness and to make looking after one’s mental – as well as physical – health, a perfectly acceptable reason for taking a much-needed day off work.
Are you ok with taking a “mental health day” when you need it? Check out this website and make a promise to yourself to look after your mental health.