How stigma cost me two and a half years of my life

I was diagnosed with Bipolar 1 Disorder in February of 2005. You might think that was a huge challenge, both personally and professionally – and you would be right. That said, the greatest (and most destructive) challenge I faced as a result of this diagnosis actually came during the preceding two and half years.

That challenge came in the form of stigma and self-stigma, which is a particularly cruel aspect of stigma where you apply all of the judgement, negative assumptions and fear towards yourself.

In fact, with the power of perspective and hindsight, I would later realize that both forms of stigma had cost me two and a half years of my life, which in turn had a massive negative impact on my work, life and those around me.

It was 2002, and I was in the early stages of a professional fundraising career working for a world-renowned university when the symptoms of Bipolar 1 Disorder first surfaced. Of course, at the time I had no idea that what I was experiencing were the symptoms of a mental illness, let alone Bipolar 1. All I knew is that I was experiencing months of reduced energy and mental acuity, followed by months of surplus energy combined with an inability to attend to details or complete projects.

These states, which I would later learn were actually mild clinical depression and mild hypomania, were present 24 hours a day for the entire time. I knew something was wrong, and even suspected a mental illness, but I didn’t seek medical attention and I completely refused the idea of any form of treatment.

Had my symptoms been migraines, or nausea, or dizziness, or any other of a long list of symptoms of better-understood illnesses, I would have acted entirely differently. I would have sought medical advice within a week or two, and would have been open to treatment.

The difference in these two scenarios is stigma. And self-stigma.

At the time, I was part of the problem I have now dedicated the rest of my life to address. I was quietly judgmental towards anyone struggling with a mental illness, which I believed was nothing more than a character flaw, such as laziness or weakness. With hard work and determination, anyone could overcome clinical depression or other so-called mental illnesses. This couldn’t be something that was happening to me.

I was so wrong.

The only reason I thought in this way is that I was taught to; not by my parents specifically, but by our society. When you look at pop culture, news reports and simply listen to the way people speak about mental illnesses, there was – and continues to be – a massive amount of stigma towards mental illnesses that doesn’t apply to physical illnesses we understand.

This stigma caused me to fall into a very common trap, one that is impacting employees and costing their employers all over the world today: I tried to “soldier on.” I kept quiet and simply tried to overcome my symptoms on my own while working through it. As you might imagine, I was unable to do so at the same productivity as when I was healthy. I missed more days than normal, and my days in the office were significantly impacted.

I was a walking presenteeism statistic.

In my estimation, I managed a 60-70% productivity level during the two and a half years I stubbornly employed this strategy. And doing so was a massive waste – of my effort and time, and of my employer’s investment in me during that time. It didn’t need to be that way.

If I had been educated on the nature of mental illnesses, I would have realized much sooner that I was trying to use willpower to resolve a failure in my body’s function. I may as well have been a Type 1 Diabetic choosing meditation over insulin injections. No one would suggest that as a reasonable strategy, but my response to the symptoms of mental illness was a stigma-fueled trap all too easy for me to fall into.

I look back and realize that if I had the appropriate training and was taught the skills and knowledge needed to handle the challenge, I would have sought treatment immediately. And if my colleagues, managers, HR and senior leadership had taken the same training, I would have been working in a stigma-free culture, which would have completely changed how I communicated about my illness at work. All of this would have meant a return to health much, much earlier, and a massive reduction in presenteeism and lost productivity.

Stigma is costing time, causing losses in productivity and is entirely unnecessary. It is borne out of a lack of education and understanding about mental illnesses, which leads to fear. That is why after many years speaking about my journey, I founded StigmaZero in order to provide a solution to this challenge.

StigmaZero makes it easy for companies to begin a culture change towards a stigma-free workplace, which allows them to realize the many benefits, including increased productivity, reduced presenteeism, lower turnover, better support for employees and the ability to attract new talent.

We achieve this through our innovative online training program, Create Your StigmaZero Workplace, which is easy to onboard company-wide and gives employees, managers, HR and senior leaders the knowledge and tools needed to better respond to this complex and challenging topic. 

We make it easy for companies to provide the training needed to build a better workplace.

Workplace mental illness and stigma is an expensive problem that hurts employees and ruins company culture. If you would like to learn more about how your company can better respond to workplace mental illness and stigma, contact us and visit our website at

Jason Finucan
Founder of StigmaZero, Author & Instructor of the Create Your StigmaZero Workplace Program

I founded StigmaZero to help employers address the complex and challenging reality of mental illness stigma. We offer companies an innovative solution: our Create Your StigmaZero Workplace online program, which is designed to eliminate the negative impacts that stigma can have on your culture as well as the cost of lost productivity. This program creates real, lasting impact on your company’s ability to manage mental illness and stigma.

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