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Katherine Switz Has A Mental Illness – And She Wants You To Know About It

Katherine Switz, founder of the Stability Network.
Courtesy of Katherine Switz
Katherine Switz, founder of the Stability Network.

When a GermanWings passenger jet slammed into the French Alps last month, killing all aboard, attention focused on the co-pilot’s treatment for severe depression – and how he hid his illness.

An estimated 58 percent of Americans don’t want people with mental health issues in their workplace, even though a vast majority of people with such illnesses can work just fine.

Katherine Switz understands.

And she gets it when people choose not to tell co-workers or managers about their mental health conditions.

She was 29, working on her MBA at Harvard, when she had a psychotic break and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

“Basically I became first manic and then over time that mania transitioned to psychosis and literally I at some point thought I was Jesus. I thought I could walk on water,” she said. “If you had seen me, you would have seen somebody disheveled, confused and very much out of control, and I was taken by ambulance to the emergency room and given my diagnosis.”

After years of struggle with how she and her illness might be perceived in the workplace, Switz founded the Stability Network, a Seattle-based organization of career professionals and business leaders who are out and open about their own mental health issues.

“I don’t fit people’s picture of somebody with mental illness,” she said. “The problem is that people haven’t seen the face of mental illness that looks like me and therefore they’re stigmatizing the face that exists.”

But that doesn’t mean she’s been able to hide her illness.

While she was at Harvard, her psychotic break and hospitalization happened to coincide with her Christmas break, which helped minimize the number of people who knew. After she was released from the hospital, she told her professors a little about her struggle and that she needed help transitioning back. After being notified, the school provided that.

“What they didn't know is that I was actually psychotic every day in class and really struggling even to keep touch with reality,” she said.

She said it took almost 10 years for her to be honest with her co-workers and employer about her illness.

“I deeply felt the societal stigma myself and I saw it play out in the workplaces that I was in, because I saw I was unable to get the care I needed on a weekly basis to get away for the doctor,” she said. “I saw that when I was hospitalized for two weeks my husband and I didn't feel comfortable telling my employer why I was in the hospital.”

She said the tipping point came when she was an executive at a nonprofit and was stable medically and physically, and her husband had a stable job. Even with all that going for her, she realized how much she was struggling with revealing her illness.  

“If I was having trouble, then I could only imagine the trouble others were having, and so I decided to organize other people like me to speak out,” she said. “And if I could get these people to speak out, the stigma would over time change.”

And what was the most difficult thing in coming out?

“The scariest part is the notion that in a few days' time you could be symptomatic again and people would actually know that your behavior was because you had a mental illness,” she said. “It's much easier to come out when you're stable and are not exhibiting symptoms.”

The reality of recruiting other people to her cause for the Stability Network was more difficult than she expected.

“The reaction when people hear that I am out is, ‘You're brave, you're courageous.’ But the subtext of that is, ‘You're crazy … why would you possibly be doing this?’”

She’s found that it can take months of personal interaction before someone is ready to speak openly about their mental illness.

And even now, after years of treatment, she said it takes constant vigilance to stay healthy.

“I do it with a very strict regimen of nine hours of sleep, exercise, a stable home environment -- all of that is critical to staying healthy. And I still have periods of symptoms when I’m unwell,” she said. “So I think that it’s so important that people see mental illness not as a point in time but as a continuum over time, but that it can be treated.”

Produced for the Web by Gil Aegerter.