By Melinda Beck
August 3, 2015
Katherine Switz thought she could walk on the Charles River when she was at Harvard Business School.
Robert Boorstin believed his hotel was the Starship Enterprise.
David Chow feared he had blown a chance at a job when he broke down crying during the interview.
All three are part of an organization called the Stability Network, founded by Ms. Switz in 2013. The group consists of nearly three dozen successful, working professionals who also contend with serious mental-health issues like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or major depression, and are willing to speak publicly about their experiences.
Many people with such illnesses work—but chances are their bosses and co-workers don’t know about their conditions. The Americans With Disabilities Act outlaws discrimination against people with mental or physical impairments, and many companies have employee-assistance programs that can provide help confidentially.
Still, mental and emotional issues carry a stigma. Deciding whether to tell managers and co-workers can be extremely difficult. So can simply getting through the day, which is why Stability Network members are also encouraged to share how they thrive despite their sometimes debilitating afflictions.
Success Despite Bipolar Disorder
Looking back, Ms. Switz says she had signs of hypomania—racing thoughts and unusual energy—even as a teenager. But it wasn’t until her final year at Harvard Business School, in 1999, when she tried to jump into the Charles River thinking she could walk on water, that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
She left the hospital after a few weeks with a stack of prescriptions, the name of a psychiatrist and little other support, she says. Within a few months, she had graduated and was working for McKinsey & Co. in Washington, D.C.
There, too, she drove herself relentlessly—especially when she was told her performance had slipped and she was given three months to turn it around. She did—but at a cost. “Hypomania can make you really productive—but for me, it’s mixed with irritability and impatience,” she says.
She never told McKinsey about her bipolar diagnosis—nor did she tell GE Capital, where she went to work as a strategy manager in 2002, after getting married and moving to the New York City area. But the stress of a wedding, a new job and a big project landed her in a psychiatric hospital again a few months later. She told GE she had a thyroid condition and worked straight through the suicidal depression that followed. “I couldn’t take the subway because I was afraid I might jump,” she says.
In April 2006, she left GE to work for nonprofits involved in global development, and gradually started opening up about her condition. She learned to identify what triggered her manic episodes—including missing sleep—and asked employers if she could limit traveling.
Her former bosses say Ms. Switz, now 44, was valuable enough that making accommodations for her was worth it. “She was so strong and capable that when she was in the field, she made a real difference,” says Ed Bland, former COO of Unitus, a nonprofit where Ms. Switz managed consultants assisting microfinancing companies in Africa, India and Southeast Asia.
“She was such a stellar performer, it was never an issue,” recalls Jennifer Potter, former CEO of the Initiative for Global Development, where Ms. Switz also worked.
Now, she works part time at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Ms. Switz also runs a consulting firm, in addition to the Stability Network. She sticks to a strict regimen to keep her symptoms under control, including taking medications, working set hours, exercising, spending time with her young son and getting to bed by 8:30 p.m. “I want to get a lot done, but the stakes are very high if I push too hard,” she says.
Ask for Help…After You’re Hired
His résumé is a litany of high-powered positions—including adviser to President Bill Clinton; co-founder of a Washington think tank and director of public policy for Google. At each job, Robert Boorstin says he has been upfront about his mental-health issues. “It’s not exactly a secret—if you Google me, the first thing you learn is that I’m sick in the head,” he says.
He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1987, while working as a reporter for the New York Times. He left soon after to work on Michael Dukakis’s presidential campaign—and had the foresight to give his assistant his psychiatrist’s phone number and tell her to call the doctor in case he got into trouble. He gives the same advice to those he counsels now. The number came in handy when had another psychotic breakdown at a Boston hotel in 1988.
That was his last such episode, Mr. Boorstin says, in part because he hasn’t been shy about asking for accommodations, including a couch to nap on in his White House office.
He also credits having an understanding family and employers—as well as medication. “Fifty years ago, people like me would have been living in their parents’ attics. Now, I like to say that the medications I take make people like me as miserable as everybody else.”
Now 56, Mr. Boorstin works with an international consulting firm, Albright Stonebridge Group, and frequently counsels others with mental-health issues. Despite his experience, he suggests not mentioning mental disorders during job interviews.
“The law says you can’t discriminate against people, but people who interview candidates for jobs sometimes do,” he says. Once you’re hired, he recommends telling at least one person—“a boss, a co-worker. Someone who can help if you need it.” He adds: “People don’t like to be surprised, and if they know what’s coming, they may be more likely to cut you a break.”
Fully Understanding Depression
David Chow was interviewing for a fundraising job at a behavioral health center in Seattle in 2010—and broke down in tears while touring the inpatient campus.
“It was the first time I’d been in a facility like that since I was an inpatient myself,” he says. He figured he’d blown his chance—but the center saw his experience as an asset instead and offered him the job. Even though he accepted a different job offer, Mr. Chow decided that speaking up about his condition might not be a career-killer after all.
Mr. Chow had expected to spend his career as a teacher, but he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 25, while teaching in Delaware, Ohio. He was hospitalized three times in four years—with violent mood swings between mania and suicidal depression.
He moved with his wife to Seattle in 2001. At one point, he told the head of a private school where he worked about his mental-health issues and regretted it. “They never treated me the same afterwards,” Mr. Chow says.
Becoming a father in 2010 had a profound effect on him. He decided to add therapy sessions to his medication. He got a new job as the director of development at Seattle University, and shared his condition with the dean of the school’s College of Arts and Sciences, David Powers, a clinical psychologist who became a close friend and mentor. (Dr. Powers says Mr. Chow’s health “wasn’t an issue at all,” given how well he was doing. “Still, it couldn’t have been easy for him…and I feel very honored that he trusted me enough to share with me that he was managing a mental-health challenge.”)
In March, Mr. Chow, 40, was recruited to be a director of philanthropy for cancer research at UW Medicine, the University of Washington’s medical school and health system. Colleagues there say they see his condition as an asset. “A key quality in our line of work is self-awareness. The work David has done to understand himself has made him better able to understand others,” says Rebecca Kelly, associate vice president at UW Medicine.
He sometimes shares his condition with potential donors when they mention their own health issues. “It’s a risk. You never know how a person will react,” he says. One donor seemed relieved, he recalls. “She said, ‘My child could grow up to be like you.’ ”