Q: Bipolar Disorder & Careers
What types of careers might you suggest for the
college graduate that has bipolar condition that are better suited to
consistent lifestyle rythym management? Is there a career advice service or registry that
specializes in matching bipolar patients with suitable careers or jobs depending
on the state of their respective bipolar condition?
Dear Mike --
Interesting question. There really are no limits, except for two broad
1. A career that requires repeated sleep deprivation is not such a hot
idea. On the other hand, there are plenty of doctors with bipolar disorder. I
was just referred another one recently. These folks are operating at a very
high level (sometimes literally). If they can do it, should we conclude before
a young person even gets under way, but she should not risk such a profession?
I don't think we can say that.
2. A career that requires exposure to severe stress is probably also not such
idea either. What is severe stress? Well, front line warfare probably counts.
By comparison with that, I think most other jobs would be regarded as fairly
mellow. So, perhaps we might be able to go so far as to say that someone with a
known bipolar disorder had best not enroll for infantry duty in the military?
Yet even that is probably too much of a constraint. There are other factors,
so-called "resiliency" factors, that might make some people with bipolar
disorder are able to tolerate even getting shot at.
In the past I joked that if I was running the military, I would do a genetic
analysis and disallow anyone with two short versions of the serotonin
transporter gene from active duty. This gene is indirectly associated with
bipolar disorder, but millions of people with no mood problems have the "two
shorts" genetic risk for stress. The entire story of that particular gene is
available and 10th-grade English here: Yellow People and Blue People
The point is, bipolar disorder as a diagnosis is probably not the way to
decide about careers. Or rather, a person with really well-controlled bipolar
disorder should not feel very constrained. It may take some work, but she could
do nearly anything. On the other hand, if the history of the disorder has been
complex, and poorly controlled, then indeed some consideration of sleep
deprivation and stress exposure is probably warranted.
To my knowledge, no one has ever thought of establishing a career advice
service for this. Again, as reflected above, I think that might be overstating
what we know. Nevertheless, as you probably have read, a lifestyle in which
regular patterns of activity are the norm -- a regular routine, that is -- has
clearly been shown to help maintain mood stability. Yet there are many people
who have violated this rule and yet done well. As in so many things, it's a
tough balance to maintain: wise forethought versus taking what life offers, or
what one seeks from it.
Published January, 2009