Episode 24: Jon Chang | Living With Bipolar Disorder & Spreading Mental Health Awareness
This is not a “I was depressed for a day or two days.” These are things that are very large chunks of someone's life.
Below is an abridged audio transcript of Episode 24, the third episode for Season 3 of Rock The Boat: Against All Odds, edited for clarity.
Mental health is a super important topic. Here are Rock the Boat, we're a huge fan of spreading awareness about mental health and had a deeply informative and eye-opening conversation with Jon Chang, mental health advocate and marketing superstar.
Jon is open about his experiences as a person with bipolar disorder. He talks to us about what bothers him about how mental health is portrayed in media and entertainment and what it was like to come of age while figuring out what was happening to his health.
Trigger warning: This interview includes references to suicide and self-harm. So if any of these topics make you uncomfortable, we recommend you skip this episode.
I. Jon's Story
Jon: My name is Jon Chang and I live in New York City…I do have a full-time job marketing and then on the side, I love speaking and teaching.
Lucia: That’s an understatement! Earlier this year, Jon was named in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for Marketing & Advertising. He recently started a new role as head of consumer growth at Klarna, a financial services shopping site.
In addition to teaching at NYU and General Assembly, he’s a startup mentor at WeWork Labs and advises the education non-profit Exploration Summer Programs.
He manages all of this while living with bipolar disorder.
Jon: I really, really do not like the word “crazy.” Popular culture has not done great things for bipolar disorder. [Kanye] released a song I think just last year and there's a line that I'm totally paraphrasing but it pretty much says I'm crazy because I'm bipolar. It's like, “What are you doing?”
So there's that and then like Thirteen Reasons Why…there's a Marvel show where one of the leading characters is bipolar. It's Magneto's daughter for the nerds out there. That's a modern show too. If this were something maybe 10 years ago it would be a little more excusable. I don't think we're in a really good place for people to not think of bipolar disorder as like someone is crazy depending on how they're exposed to it.
Lucia: It’s because of this misconception that Jon decided to speak more openly about his diagnosis. Planting seeds of factual information with his family, friends and colleagues opened the door for real conversations about bipolar people – that led to more understanding and compassion.
Jon: I was having a conversation with a colleague…it's actually the reason it pushed me over the tipping point to feel confident talking about it, feeling like I have a purpose to talk about this publicly, because his reaction was “I would have never guessed” and I was like, “Why wouldn't you have guessed?” He was saying because you don't do XY and Z and these are the things that I know about it. The reason why I brought it up to him is because I knew that he was kind of more woke about mental illness and I was like, “You still don't get it and you're one of the people that I think is more in tune and more aware of mental illnesses.”
I’d have to like remind him that this is not defining me
I just wanted to let you know for two reasons. One, I wanted to build a support group in New York City at that time and I just want more people that I can call if I'm like not feeling well, and the other thing is I wanted to just not hide it at times and be able to just kind of talk openly about it.
Lucia: So what exactly is bipolar disorder?
Jon: Bipolar disorder is a chemical imbalance in the brain that manifests as a mood disorder. And the moods are very extreme in both directions. Meaning, that as someone who lives with bipolar disorder, I regulate it. First of all, just a total normal human being, but it comes with the risks of going on either side of those spectrums when I slip into mania. So mania itself is the elation period and delusion and all that kind of stuff but within a manic episode there's the mania and then there's the manic-depressive part of it.
Lucia: Jon says that a depressive period can last weeks to months. It can be extremely debilitating.
Jon: This is not a “I was depressed for a day or two days.” These are things that are very large chunks of someone's life.
Lucia: Jon wasn’t always this open about his mental health. Partly because bipolar disorder is often talked about with contempt or confusion – but also because his symptoms didn’t manifest until he was a preteen and teenager.
Jon: So I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. Which is kind of like the suburbs anywhere. And I grew up as the youngest of four and my sisters are like 13 years/11 years older than me. So it almost was kind of like growing up just with one other sibling, but with a lot of additional support and a lot of playing dress-up because that's what they really wanted to do when I was growing up. Of course I had no say with it, but it was a lot of fun growing up with sisters in retrospect now because it really affects my personality and especially growing up in a suburb that is like primarily Caucasian, like most suburbs in the United States, it was great to have like that kind of backup and support because my relationship with my parents wasn't super close.
I don't mean that in necessarily a bad way, but my dad was very stereotypically, “The son and the family need to be strong”…and then my mom actually passed away when I was eight. So I did rely more heavily on my sisters who had more life experience, even though they were out of the house at college while I was growing up.
II. Jon's Diagnosis
Lucia: It’s difficult to accept a diagnosis that you’re unfamiliar with – especially if no one you know has the same disorder. Jon needed further clarification.
Jon: During college and after college, I did my own little study. I went to multiple psychiatrists and had them assess me. I didn't tell them that I thought I was bipolar. I just wanted them to give me a diagnosis. They all came back with bipolar disorder. Eventually I ended up doing a thyroid test and a CAT scan as well, because those are other ways that you can confirm it.
There are other people where it manifests here and there and it's really hard to tell - they end up getting diagnosed with something else. Like some people get diagnosed with ADHD. However, the medication for that is a trigger for a manic episode and it's highly problematic when there's erratic behavior like that, but it's misdiagnosed or misperceived.
I just like could not see what was happening back then. So one of the things that ended up happening and with a different girl, I was my senior year of high school that second semester. I was seeing this girl and she decided to stop seeing me because of all my erratic behavior.
I was so needy, like I had that separation anxiety and that pretty much like broke me because of how sensitive I was and how I had not yet put into place coping mechanisms.
So I ended up trying to kill myself and was also in a long history at that point of self-injury. So I would find ways since 5th grade to go and injure myself and all of that came out of the woodwork when I was at this one friend's party and her dad saw me in their bathroom injuring myself and eventually like went to the hospital. Didn't need to go to the hospital because I was in that much danger, but because that was just that some very natural conclusion like this kid needs help. Let's put him in a situation that helps him be safe.
Lucia: His sisters were also unsure how to approach the situation. And to be fair, they were still growing up themselves when their mom died and they took on a co-parenting role. Jon was the baby of the family and they weren’t equipped with the tools to handle this delicate, life-altering behavior – especially when mental health was rarely discussed in the family.
Jon: There was even one time when we were at brunch after I was already in the hospital and people knew that that I started just crying at the table because I was trying to figure out what was happening with my body and they just started antagonizing me about how strong I was and things that they went through and all that kind of stuff. I do love my sisters we get along -but it was really the first time my family in general talked about mental health, they were going through their own things as well but this was that period of time when we had to address it.
Lucia: But as time went on, their perspectives became more progressive.
Jon: When I was talking to one of my sisters recently, like it's so much more comfortable talking about it because for work I've had to go to Chicago a bunch and I have a cute little dog - who I don't bring with because she just barely doesn't fit like under a seat or whatever the airplane requirements are.
So my sister was saying, “Well, you can use bipolar disorder as a way to get the emotional support,” and it was just nice for her to bring it up and in a way that wasn't like, “Oh, hide it.”
Lynne: For many Asian families, it’s not very acceptable to talk about mental health issues. It’s a private matter that can even be considered “impolite”. These prejudices run deep – to the point that it’s considered better to deal with pain privately, even if it’s detrimental to your (and your future children’s) long term wellness.
Lucia: Jon also heard from his sisters that his mom was consistently triggered and took it out on his sisters. He thinks it’s possible his bipolar disorder was genetic – but since his parents never received mental health treatment, the origin is unknown. What Jon does know though is that since he received his diagnosis, he tries to create awareness of his triggers.
Jon: One is extreme conflict…I ended an engagement this year. And then I've also been switching jobs. My business unit was divested and bought by private equity and there's a lot of more than just bickering happening in both of those situations. So it was really, really, really hard for me to not slip into episodes. So usually I've been really good at like only slipping into an episode maybe once a year maybe once every two years.
III. Advocating for Mental Health
Lucia: What can bosses and co-workers do to make the workplace more mental health friendly?
Jon: One of the things I've done as a manager before, and I've gotten good feedback about it from my direct reports, is during check-ins make part of it an EQ check-in. So we have our performance check-ins and what are the blockers with your work? How is this progressing? Yada yada yada. But then also, how are you feeling day-to-day? I have phrased it very openly.
Lucia: Jon’s coping mechanisms have been developed on his sick days and check-ins with himself. The process is twofold: there’s reactionary (an event unfolds that he doesn’t have control over) and preventative (how he prepares daily before an event may unfold.)
Jon: For the reactionary, I mean, I do isolate myself. I am kind of flaky.
All of a sudden I'm like, I'm not going to hang out tonight. I need to stay home. I'm gonna go watch a movie and cuddle with my dog or something. It's removing myself from the social situations. But also as a reactionary coping mechanism, sometimes being around people is better whereas isolation will push me further towards an episode. So it really depends on the stage. I would say it's almost like bookends or the buns of the hamburger. If it's really mild then I think I would isolate or if it's extreme and I'm getting really close then I would isolate as well .
But for kind of the middle intensities. I think it's usually better if I just go hang out with friends.
Preventive care is a habit.
Once my habits are totally messed up, the risk dramatically increases. So I meditate every day. I make sure to go to bed and wake up at the same times every day. Once a sleep schedule is off, that's like the worst thing for me.
Lucia: For Jon, identifying as bipolar came with a lot of self-awareness. It’s a consistent process of checking in with yourself – even when things seem fine.
Jon: It's definitely been a lot of trial and error because one of the things that's really hard to measure for myself is the intensity of what I feel and there's a fine line in the tipping point…there’s symptoms and there’s signs, but I don't always know like how intense it is. And I don't necessarily catch it. So there's self-awareness to know the situations, but after that there's a lot of trial and error because I feel like it's your own internal compass or your own internal barometer.
Lucia: Jon goes to therapy and sees a psychiatrist. No one else in his family goes to therapy.
Jon: Admittedly, I recently started going again because of all the turbulence this year. Before that my metric of success was slipping or not slipping into an episode and then living my life because I have prioritized my career so much and I have been going out and getting drinks like happy hour. I usually do three happy hours a week, but for me it just can't be a group of more than three people unless they're people that are in my closest circle. I don't know what it is - I'm definitely like an introvert. So if it's less than three people, it doesn't really trigger me and I can still kind of achieve that whole like I'm being chummy and like progressing my career.
Lucia: Jon still feels like there is societal discrimination against those with mental health issues.
Jon: When I apply for a job, I have to check the box…I may choose to just check the box that says I live with a disability because it's listed in that whole long list of disabilities. Before Obamacare, if I were like freelancing or consulting, I could not get health insurance because of bipolar disorder - just was rejected everywhere. And part of it is because there is such a historical high risk of things like suicide and not necessarily having the right medication.
I think it does play into this kind of model minority thing for the perceptions of people who are Asian American with mental illness.
I just feel like I'm not given as much slack about it as like someone who might be like Caucasian and having a mental illness because I just feel like Asian Americans aren't as well understood. It goes back to the well, you know, you're like all doctors. You're all whatever, you're all thriving in the society. So I don't feel like I get as much slack when I talk about it.
Within the Asian American community, the phrase “losing face” - that is something that I think is really particularly hard to navigate in Asian American culture, especially those who like still use that phrase…because one of the things that happen after my dad found out that was injuring myself is he told us to that our relatives can never know because then we'll lose face as a family…I find that really interesting now.
I don't feel the need to force the conversations with my relatives.
I want to be protective over my dad as well because I'm dragging multiple people through it depending on how it's perceived and who knows in the Asian American community.
Lucia: Jon recommends that all people, not just who identify as bipolar, should try therapy.
Jon: It's not just a crisis management kind of thing and it's not just for people who are unhealthy. Therapy is a great way to explore your feelings and make a more robust life overall…
Even if you don't continue to go, I think it's a really good experience that then helps be more empathetic when friends and family members want to talk to you about their own issues.