Samir Dawlatly: Times have changed for me

Four years ago I wrote about my diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and how despite this I had gone on to be successful at medical school, in the hope that it would provide hope to health professionals with mental health problems. Despite a diagnosis of rapid-cycling bipolar disorder at the age of 20, I had finished medical school, achieved an “intercalated” PhD in molecular pharmacology, several academic prizes, got married, and had children (the cat has since died, unfortunately). I also hoped that by publicising my story I would be part of a change in attitude towards those affected by mental illness, as personified by the “Time To Change” campaign.

The most difficult aspect of submitting the article was deciding whether or not to put my name to it, or to leave it anonymous, knowing that in the future it could turn up on an internet search of my name (which is quite unusual for the UK). I would, of course, have control over whether or not it was in my CV; bearing in mind that a high-impact journal publication is very desirable for a trainee applying for jobs.

One piece of advice given to me was that any article disclosing severe enduring mental illness is made much more powerful if it is not anonymous, which I agreed with and the email responses I had certainly were testament to that. Now that my diagnosis was in the public domain, well at least for those with access to the journal, I also had to decide whether this article and my diagnosis was something I would try to keep from any future prospective employer, who would likely base their decision to shortlist me for a job on my CV.

I came to the conclusion that if having bipolar disorder was an issue for someone, then they were probably the type of people that I didn’t want to work with or for. I had the perception that this was a choice that I was lucky to be able to make with a CV as colourful and packed with publications as mine. I am sure that potential employers could officially give some other reason not to employ me and so avoid, inadvertently or deliberately, breaking discrimination laws. In any event, the publication and by proxy, the revelation of my diagnosis, has remained in my CV for the last four years. Admittedly, I have let it sit somewhat surrounded, but never hidden, by other efforts of mine that I have managed to publish.

My story has moved on. After training part time, so I could be a part-time house husband, I completed my MRCGP and earlier this year I had three different job offers to consider (two salaried and a long-term locum). None of them was quite right for me so I spent a considerable amount of time making sure my CV was just right for each and every of the many job applications I made, always keeping my BMJ article there as an acknowledgement of my diagnosis.

Eventually, eight months after qualifying as a GP, I was offered a partnership job. I was certain that my future colleagues had not yet got round to reading through all my publications, including the one that always made me nervous yet proud, so I decided to disclose my bipolar disorder to them. I figured that they had offered me the job already and couldn’t now withdraw it on the basis of my disclosure, but a part of me was worried that they might think that I had kept my diagnosis secret, or would find some other reason or excuse to offer the job to someone else.

And this is where my story has a happy ending. The fact that I have the diagnosis of bipolar disorder made no difference for the enthusiasm of the partners to invite me to join them. In fact, my level of concern was probably greater than theirs. I felt that perhaps I had created a problem where there wasn’t one. I’m relieved that I will not need to feel like I am hiding something from my colleagues. I’m relieved that, although I have been stable for over 17 years, they will likely be keeping a lookout for me, for my sake and theirs. Lastly, I’m hoping, for the sake of all health professionals with mental health issues, that this reflects an attitude towards doctors with mental health problems, that will encourage others to also be open and honest.

Samir Dawlatly is a GP partner in Rubery, Birmingham. He lives with his wife and three children, having grown up in Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Surrey. He graduated from the University of Birmingham with an MBChB, BMedSc and a PhD (Pharmacology). He is currently a member of the RCGP adolescent health group and is an honorary clinical tutor for the medical school from which he graduated. He can be found lurking on Twitter as @sdawlatly.

I declare that I have read and understood the BMJ policy on declaration of interests and I have no relevant interests to declare.