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2021-04-23

Mental Illness Relapse in the Workplace

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Her relapse opened my eyes to an entire unspoken stigma
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When I first entered the professional world working in the mental health system, I never
shared my lived experience of recovering from schizophrenia. This was for a few reasons.

First, I had spent so much time investing in my recovery that I wanted to focus on my career, which was deferred and put on hold by my diagnosis. I also knew there was still a stigma globally, and I wanted to see how pervasive it was among practicing clinicians. I hadn’t spent enough time working in the system yet to know how people felt about people with lived experience working as clinicians and open about
their diagnosis.

So, when I first began working for a non-profit organization as a mental health clinician, I never talked about my history or recovery. It was a difficult thing to hide. While mental illness is invisible, the people who carry their diagnosis aren’t living, breathing people.

As a living, breathing person having a diagnosis, working for a mental health agency in the same geographical area that I was in treatment for my mental health disorder, it became increasingly difficult to hide my history.
There came the point when I finally realized I couldn’t hide it anymore. That moment was when I truly got to know about peer support and supposedly not being embarrassed by my diagnosis.
Learning about the history of the movement allowed me to begin thinking about my recovery as a source of pride and, in turn, using it to model recovery for my fellow peers in recovery. At that moment, I disclosed my diagnosis, history of mental health issues and joined the peer network in the agency.

A few months into my career as a peer professional, the leadership in the peer network began to unravel. My peer supervisor was clearly becoming more and more unable to supervise, was increasingly agitated, and ultimately, was openly and visibly delusional. Her relapse opened my eyes to an entirely unspoken stigma that is still rampant in the mental health system today.

For example, you would think someone at my mental health agency, or someone with a good clinical background, would have intervened and connected my supervisor to treatment – spoken openly to my supervisor about her shift in presentation, and how it might present a problem about her ability to carry out her job responsibilities. In the end, there was no signal or flag explained to her that her mental status was altered– Her ultimate termination and exit from the agency were looming.

Rumors began to spread about the peer supervisor who went ‘crazy,’ behaved bizarrely, and in turn, this created problems and a bad name for the peer network. Not only did the situation created issues, but these problems were a direct result of her mental health diagnosis.

All of this was highly disillusioning. I had just openly ‘came out as a peer and my supervisor, a so-called expert in recovery, fell victim to her mental health disorder.

Thinking back now, the peer network in the agency could have used this as a learning lesson for us peers. Peer supervision could have included a robust discussion around relapse and the ongoing need to be mindful of what can happen to each peer with particular vulnerabilities.

The agency could have also used this to develop a protocol on how to handle such a situation. What happened next was even more disillusioning.

A few months later, the very same situation happened again. The new peer supervisor, who replaced the supervisor who relapsed, experienced a relapse of her own. Nobody said anything.

Any time one of us peers would ask for her, we were told the same thing: ‘It’s been quiet,
nobody has said or knows anything about what’s happening, or how she is…’ What’s even more mironic is that some of us knew this person on a personal basis. You would think we would have a vested interest in her health.

I later discovered that very few people reached out to this person in crisis, and ultimately, after her job too was terminated, there were again no learning lessons. Instead, there was a whole lot of taboo, stigma, and shame surrounding her mysterious
departure.

There was no discussion about the more significant implications of these seemingly reoccurring and understandable occurrences of relapse when you have a mental health disorder.

If my supervisor had been a clinician instead of just a peer professional, the AGENCY would have handled the entire situation very differently. Social workers and psychologists are all openly confronted about their mental health status, and changes in their presentation and mental health status aren’t considered ‘taboo.’

I recommend all disillusioned peers and all people working in the mental health system with a diagnosis:have enough insight into your diagnosis to know when you are relapsing. Modeling health, wellness, and openness around your lived experience so if you do relapse, people can have feel comfortable having an open discussion around it”.

While all of us are victims of injustice, prejudice, and at risk of victimization, until we
come out and fight against the taboo and tucked- away nature of mental health disorders, even peers will always feel awkward about the realities of their health publicly. In the end, back then, I was no better than the rest of the agency.

I may not have contributed to the displays and increasingly tense environment in the peer leadership. Still, I passively observed someone who is now a good friend actively decline in her connection to the world.

Today, the two of us peers cut through any red tape in social graces or awkward feelings
between us when looking at our mental health.

After all, checking in on a friend or peer entails prioritizing health and attending to wellness before the politics of intra-agency affairs. In the end, my peer is more important than putting on airs and pretending everything is alright in a world where that was never the case.

About the Author

J. Peters

Max Guttman '08, MSW '12, is the owner of Recovery Now, a private mental health practice. Through his work as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, therapist and disability rights advocate, Max fights for those without a voice in various New York City care systems. He received a 2020 Bearcats of the Last Decade 10 Under 10 award from the Binghamton University Alumni Association.

Guttman treats clients with anxiety and depression, but specializes in issues related to psychosis or schizoaffective spectrum disorders. He frequently writes on his lived experiences with schizophrenia.

"I knew my illness was so complex that I’d need a professional understanding of its treatment to gain any real momentum in recovery," Guttman says. "After undergraduate school and the onset of my illness, I evaluated different graduate programs that could serve as a career and mechanism to guide and direct my self-care. After experiencing the helping hand of my social worker and therapist right after my 'break,' I chose social work education because of its robust skill set and foundation of knowledge I needed to heal and help others."

"In a world of increasing tragedy, we should help people learn from our lived experiences. My experience brings humility, authenticity and candidness to my practice. People genuinely appreciate candidness when it comes to their health and recovery. Humility provides space for mistakes and appraisal of progress. I thank my lived experience for contributing to a more egalitarian therapeutic experience for my clients."

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