Getting back to work after a mental health episode

Every day I am reminded of the life I used to lead. On bad days, that meant not being able to get out of bed, barely eating, being exhausted all the time yet being unable to sleep. The good times were getting out of the house battling crippling anxiety.

Getting back to work after a mental health episode
Getting back to work after a mental health episode

By Aditi Surendra

I’ve had recurring depression since I was 13 and generalized anxiety disorder since I was 22. I tried several therapists but avoided medication most of my life, leading to the untreated symptoms getting worse by the year. In 2013, when I was 27, my mother passed away and it threw me into an intense episode of depression. I finally sought treatment - therapy and medication - but my symptoms persisted. I got diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) in 2018 when I was 32; and with that diagnosis came a more specific treatment. A year later, my condition improved significantly.

My life has had countless ups and downs and this is apparent when you take a look at my resume. You can tell when every episode of depression hit by the periods of freelancing between full time work. In 2013, I gave up the idea of working full time because I thought it was impossible due to my mental illness. The depression would often leave me dysfunctional and it didn’t seem right to commit to a full time position.

However, the BPD diagnosis gave me hope. The numerous years of despair finally had an explanation and the future could now hold a more effective solution. Unfortunately, BPD cannot be cured, only treated and managed. Nevertheless, I began mentalization-based treatment, took my medication regularly and made lifestyle changes.

A year after my diagnosis, I landed my dream job - creating content for a mental health NGO - and with it a great deal of anxiety. Would I be able to commit to the full time position? How would I handle my commute? What happens when an episode of depression hits? How would the organization respond to my mental illness? How transparent should I be about my symptoms?

I discussed these worries at length with my therapist, psychiatrists, friends and family. I came up with a plan to make the transition into working full time as smooth as possible. The drastic change had upset the routine I was following; I could no longer hit the gym at 4 pm or have a late dinner at 10 pm. I decided to concentrate on going to work regularly during the week and spending the weekend doing laundry, cleaning my room and socializing.

Unfortunately, a month after I joined, an episode of depression hit. I couldn’t understand how inspite of having everything going for me, I felt miserable. I decided to be honest with my manager about how I was feeling. I took a few days of leave and pulled myself back together by talking to my counselor. Since then, I made sure to be transparent about my mental state of mind with my manager who I spoke to in confidence. Any time, there was a disturbance in my mental health, I either took a day off or had my tasks reduced for a day or two. Now, the frequency of these disturbances has reduced and the routine I built for myself has stabilized.

I also reaped many benefits from getting back to work. I started eating and sleeping at the same time every day which led to my physical health improving greatly. The routine and workload helped focus my thoughts on a daily basis and the deadlines kept my motivation up. The financial stability reduced my worries greatly and the commute kept the generalized anxiety at bay.

Having a secure job has done a lot for the stability of my mental health as well. The challenge of sticking to a routine has had a grounding effect on me. Come depression or anxiety, breakfast is at 8 am and sleep at 10:30 pm; and I aim to adhere to it. Applying myself in a field where my enthusiasm lies has boosted my self-confidence. This has impacted how I respond to a crisis as well. Instead of spiralling down a path of self-loathing, I am able to see what I have accomplished and stay positive that I am in fact getting better.

The return to a full-time position after any period of absence due to a mental health episode can be daunting. The solution to making the transition smooth is to be open about your anxieties with your support system; temporarily prioritize getting to work above handling domestic responsibilities and maintain transparency with your managers.

It is important to ask the right questions - what are the situations that may make it hard to return? How many of them are in your control? How will you tackle them? Once you have asked these questions and discussed them with your support system and your employers, the change will be easier. And once you make the transition, you can also enjoy the positive impact that a full-time job has on recovery from a mental health issue.

This article has been republished with permission from the Mental Health Wellbeing section of the White Swan Foundation's website.