‘As a social worker I was made to feel shame for my bipolar diagnosis’

Sophie Ayers faced stigma from fellow social workers after being open about her bipolar diagnosis. But having left the job, she urges practitioners to remember those they support are not 'cases', but people just like them

A woman covering her face with her hands.
Photo by Ratna/AdobeStock

Have you noticed prejudice towards you or a colleague in the workplace following the disclosure of a mental health diagnosis?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Three years ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

It led to an abrupt end to my social work career with some comebacks during fleeting moments of recovery. But, ultimately, my psychiatrist determined that I was unlikely to reach full recovery if I continued to work as a social worker.

Having bipolar has lots of scary connotations and is often viewed very negatively by society.

I have bipolar II disorder which means that, while I suffer from hypomania – short periods that may include high energy levels, abnormally elevated mood, insomnia and/or irritability – it never develops into full mania, which lasts longer and has more severe symptoms.

This often means that we, and those close to us, can miss signs of hypomania as you may simply appear jovial and highly productive.

During Covid, pandemic-induced stress and my age led to my hypomania developing into much more destructive ‘mixed episodes’, during which depression and hypomania co-occur, making life hell at times and my symptoms more difficult to hide and manage.

Opening up about bipolar

When I was diagnosed I made the decision to be open about my diagnosis through blog posts I wrote to raise awareness and show there was no shame in having an illness.

I felt it was important for others who had similar symptoms to be alert to them and seek treatment.

However, some in the social work community actively stigmatised me for it.

I can understand why people are cautious about sharing aspects of their private life. But, for me, everyone should have autonomy about what they share – as long as it is not in the active context of working with people who they deliver services to.

Since my diagnosis I have managed long periods of recovery and it was during one of these that I returned to work as a social worker for a new organisation.

I had not divulged that I was bipolar during my interview, because the law does not require me to do so. But I had always planned to outline it in supervision after settling into the job and discuss my needs.

Being ‘outed’ in the workplace

To reiterate, I was in active recovery and there were no present signs of illness.

However, a person who happened to have read some of my blogs about being took it upon themselves to ‘whistleblow’ to my boss about my illness.

Share your story

Would you like to write about a day in your life as a social worker? Do you have any stories, reflections or experiences from working in social work that you’d like to share or write about?

If so, email our community journalist, Anastasia Koutsounia, at anastasia.koutsounia@markallengroup.com

My manager saw the move as one of a bystander wishing to help. I recognised the action for what it was: an attempt to alert the organisation that my bipolar diagnosis meant I should not be working there.

The manager was kind, but our relationship changed. For the next couple of years, I was constantly hyper-vigilant and, because of this person’s actions, felt shame for my condition.

What happened temporarily blotted my passion for showing the realities of living with a serious mental illness and that you can thrive, with the right treatment.

But a chance encounter with the owner of a yoga studio changed this perception.

She was a kind, confident, ethereal woman who, through one conversation, was able to bring me back from internal shame to being proud of my tenacity and survival.

It is ironic that a private business owner showed more acceptance and compassion than some people within social work I have encountered.

Receiving care as a social worker

Receiving services from care professionals is inherently complicated when you have worked as a social worker.

As a trauma-informed practitioner, it is very onerous when you receive care from someone whose values do not reflect social work ones, and who, at times, can be callous and dismissive.

I have received the best of care and the worst of care during my time as a mental health patient.”

I find it very difficult to keep quiet about any sense of injustice that comes my way (and there have been many), and with my innate need to challenge, I can be perceived as difficult and demanding.

Celebrate your colleagues

As part of our celebrations for Community Care’s 50th anniversary, we wanted to highlight the brilliant work social workers do every day to help each other and those they support. Be part of our My Brilliant Colleague series and write to us about a colleague’s excellent practice or support they’ve given you in a time of crisis.

You or your colleague have the option to be anonymous and the entries can feature anyone you work with, including team managers, practice educators and students. Check out the latest entry and find more information by reading our nominations form.

Adapting to a new identity

In reality, I just want to get well and I understand my right to good and adequate care.

Having to adapt to my new identity as ‘someone who receives services’ has been a journey.  It has made me realise how having your life exposed to services can be traumatic all on its own.

With my illness, I have gained wisdom about the plight of those who access services and, should I return to social work, I am sure my practice would be much improved for that experience.

But I am unlikely to return.

‘You never know when you may become ill’

At the age of 41, I am in the enviable position, with full recovery at my fingertips, to lead an exciting and fulfilling life, with endless possibilities.

Despite the last three years having been hellish, I would not trade my experiences because of the wisdom and mental clarity about life I have gained in return.

So, to the social work community I say that you never know when you may become ill with serious mental illness.

People who access services are not ‘others’, they are us, they are you, so treat every service user with compassion and give them the care you would wish to receive.”

Remember, it is their real lives that you are touching. It is a normal reaction for them to become annoyed or distressed at times. This is their everyday reality – they are not ‘cases’, they are people.

As for me, I am no longer hiding my illness – it is not my shame.


13 Responses to ‘As a social worker I was made to feel shame for my bipolar diagnosis’

  1. Marianne Todd March 20, 2024 at 1:47 pm #

    This is a great article Sophie and really does pick up on some important issues. I’m really pleased to hear you are doing so well.

  2. BurnedOutSW March 20, 2024 at 2:53 pm #

    Very brave of you. I am also facing challenges with my own disabilities and my managers. Sadly any reasonable adjustments are seen as asking too much and I have been told that if I cannot do the job (i.e. way to much work that frankly nobody is coping with) I should not be doing it.

    • JJf March 23, 2024 at 10:20 am #

      This rings bells for me too back 12 years ago when I was forced to take early retirement after a period of absence for what was then diagnosed as depression. Looking back I consider it was contributed to by a late menopause, where I lost many of my dyslexic strategies for coping with the work and the loss of both my parents within 6 months, 4 years previously. Like you I would have needed support to return but despite my having been a children and families Social worker for over 30 years, with 25 years in Adoption and fostering, they said they didn’t have the resources to supervise me! Leading up to my breakdown, I had felt unsupported and victimised, so I was anxious and not sleeping. My Dr seemed to be the only one who truly understood or tried to. Not a caring profession when it comes to looking after their workstaff.

  3. Angie March 20, 2024 at 7:34 pm #

    Well done Sophie, very moving and sadly rang true. A dear SW friend has now left the profession due to very similar issues. As with you, another sad loss to our service users. Your ability to understand your own struggles and apply that empathy to others will shine through in your future and for those individuals you encounter along the way. Wishing you bright blessings x

  4. NoJudgementsHere March 20, 2024 at 8:43 pm #

    How utterly refreshing to read this very honest and, in my experience, sadly a very true reflection of how judgmental social work has become, and as a result, ia complete contrast to its inception.
    I gave up my sw career based on exactly this. I suffered PTS symptoms exactly a year after losing my dearly loved father to hospital acquired covid in the very first pandemic wave. I was overly emotional and made a decision that raised a safeguarding concern and subsequent investigation. And further trauma on top of what I had been through with dad.
    I’ve reflected on the incident and accept that my decision making was not the right one, however, and key to enriching practice, should have felt able to return after the tribunal, but knew that I would be shunned and not able to work over the local authority networks due to how they ‘talk’ to each other. I should have felt my competencies were worthy of starting again when feeling better, but was not the case.
    I finally gave up my registration last summer after feeling betrayed by a profession that was supposed to understand mental health, and recognise the needs and compassion required. Social workers have been the most judgmental of people, in my experience, choosing to ignore the nonjudgmental practices supposedly at the heart of our ethics. I can no longer work in a system that chooses to make judgments that significantly impact a person’s life, to the point of nearly losing their home and taking low paid work to make ends meet.
    I speak of children’s social work as my student time in mental health was positive.
    On to the here and now and I’m in a fantastic job I love, supporting people with mental health needs. I am a manager, with staff and many clients. My skills serve me well, but I no longer hold the sw title; another loss I’ve had to endure. I worked hard to become a sw at the age of 42, to have it ended by the very same profession that should have shown way more compassion.
    It’s ok. I’m moving forward. I love my job. I’m even grateful that having been a social worker put me on a road that led to today.

    • JJf March 23, 2024 at 10:26 am #

      It’s great to hear how you have turned your life around. I relate to this too, as I used my acquired skills to continue working with children and parents in various settings less well paid than Social work. (BTW I do think Social workers should be paid more!)

  5. frustrated March 20, 2024 at 9:45 pm #

    When I was a Social Worker I found it strange that there was no compassion or understanding from what should be caring, compassionate people. What made this difficult was that as a caring compassionate person I gave a lot of myself to clients, tough when nobody is giving it back.

  6. V March 20, 2024 at 11:31 pm #

    Thank you so much for writing this. I have found social work to be a hugely ableist profession. As someone who became very visibly disabled during my career the response was frightening. Suddenly going from a good social worker to people doubting my ability because of physical health issues. I can only imagine how much worse this would be for mental health. I really think we need to have a re think about our profession. Something many people who receive social work enjoy is a sense of connection or realising you ‘get it’ on a personal level too can be hugely helpful for all involved. We aren’t just the people you work with, we are colleagues and fellow professionals too.

  7. A March 22, 2024 at 9:42 am #

    That’s a really good article, well written and brave of the writer for highlighting these issues. Pleased to hear that their recovery went well and that a compassionate yoga teacher was the one to help…ironic really as HR and the team manager didn’t!!!!
    It seems like the professionals who should be caring aren’t, however, this isn’t always the case there are plenty of caring and good professionals, HOWEVER those that aren’t, particularly if they are managers often set the tone for the team. It saddens me to hear how social workers are targetted, often due to working high caseloads, but if they try and address this (it should be management) then they are targetted even more. No wonder more experienced workers are leaving….however, there are shirkers in the profession! It seems SW is in crisis and an ever increasing inexperienced workforce, with inexperienced managers leading (yes everyone has to start somewhere) BUT there are alot of social workers that would rather do something else. Shame as it wasn’t like this years ago.

  8. Duncan Ross March 22, 2024 at 11:36 am #

    A very interesting article. As a social worker living with bipolar I would recommend disclosure at the interview stage. My experience has been positive. If the employer is aware of your diagnosis and decides not to appoint you on that basis then that suggests something about a working culture that would not be good for your mental health. I also believe that in some scenarios it is appropriate to disclose your diagnosis to adults that you work with as this can be a way to model that you are authentic about anti discriminatory practice.

  9. Not My Real Name March 22, 2024 at 12:09 pm #

    Social Workers need to join a Trade Union. It’s always a surprise when I attend hearings how little managers actually know about the law. Most managers these days are just bean counters and you are just one of the beans that needs counting. Some compassionate and empathy would be good, and understanding of discrimination issues would be better, but an understanding of the law is paramount and many don’t have it.

  10. Emma March 30, 2024 at 5:18 pm #

    I was fortunate enough to work alongside this wonderful person as a newly qualified social worker. She inspired me then, and she continues to inspire me now.

  11. Anonymous April 12, 2024 at 7:31 pm #

    Thanks for your article. I work/ed as an OT alongside social workers in a health and social care capacity. It is so sad. I agree as has been mentioned that I had an expectation that people drawn to these job roles would have a sense of empathy, humanity or knowledge with regards to living with a mental illness. I am constantly in disbelief that is not the case. In defence, my colleagues were mostly supportive but management, absolutely not. I have Bipolar 1. Following a section a couple of years ago (which hadn’t happened for 20 years) I eventually returned to work. The period off sick was managed so badly. The build up to return, demoralising. I’ve managed to stay back in the job for 14 months. Unfortunately a mixed episode forced me to go off sick again. Without union representation (mine unfortunately lapsed), I think it’s extremely difficult. Especially in the vulnerable state of recovery. I am due to return, probably against advice of psych but I am already sensing the “we cannot make enough reasonable adjustments that are acceptable to the service” and the dismissal conversation. It’s devastating and humiliating. The fact also that even if it gets to that point, the chance of managers agreeing to early medical retirement is highly unlikely. Health/social care workers, in general, invest so much in their roles. I despair that the same investment isn’t provided following years of service. Utter discrimination at every turn. I wish I’d had the energy to reflect this back and make changes in my workplace. People with MI are absolute warriors and I hold the same sense of sadness and injustice as yourself. Thanks again for the article.