The Psych Central Report

Employment and Mental Illness

Wendy Reiersen Thompson
November, 2004

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It's often a vicious circle. Having mental or emotional problems can make it harder to get a job, or to get the job that you want. Being unemployed or settling for a job that is unsatisfying to you doesn't do your mental health any favors either. The problem is quite serious and breaking the cycle can be difficult. Many homeless people have mental health issues, without which perhaps they would have jobs and access to housing, but not having an address contributes further, and makes it that much harder to get a job. Sometimes one thing just seems to build on top of another, making it harder to see solutions to anything. Yet there are also people who have mental and emotional struggles, yet they have good jobs. Sometimes they may struggle with work-related issues also, but they can serve as an inspiration and example to others. First, let's take a look at some of the obstacles that mental health issues can pose in the realm of working, and maybe a few ways to get through those roadblocks.

One of the more obvious worries is the stigma associated with mental illness. People these days may know that it isn't ok to discriminate on the basis of differences such as race, gender, and physical disabilities. Mental illness scares people though, for more than one reason. Beyond assuming that it may constitute an inability to do the job, or that instability and unpredictability are going to be problems (which is not likely to be true - people who have mental health challenges are quite often among the brightest, most capable, and conscientious), people's fear of their own challenges they are not ready to face may add to their discomfort. Mental health exists on a continuum. Nobody has perfect mental health, and those who have been diagnosed with issues may actually only be the ones who have chosen to face their issues and work on improving themselves. Other people can see the same issues in themselves, and being reminded of their own imperfections can feel threatening.

Two main approaches come to mind for dealing with the stigma of mental illness. One is education - letting employers know that it is wrong to discriminate on the basis of mental or emotional disabilities just as much as any other kind of discrimination (unless there is a legitimate reason why the person cannot do the job), and that this population has much to offer.

The other, which seems unfair but is nonetheless realistic, is simply not to volunteer to employers or prospective employers that you have mental health issues. They do not have a need to know unless it does affect your ability to do the job, and they are not legally permitted to ask about things not directly related to your ability to work in the chosen setting.

Can mental health issues affect one's job performance? Well, yes. One example for those of you who have seen the TV show, E.R. this season is the new resident who struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and had to check and re-check everything he did to the point that he was slow to act at times when speed was crucial, and was unable to cope when urgency outweighed the importance of ensuring perfect sterility. Problems like these can be overcome, but he chose to quit. It is also possible for loss of energy or motivation, or even loss of awareness or contact with reality to interfere. One solution I have heard of is for two people to share a job. Then if one of them is not able to work that day, the other can be there and the job gets done. Most of this kind of performance issue can be managed simply by being aware of one's needs and limitations, and doing what one can to work through them or work around them, and also to choose employment that is appropriate for them.

Perceived limits may actually be a bigger problem. Sometimes there is someone who has told us that we are not capable, or who is not willing to let us try. Maybe we grew up with this message from our parents, or maybe it is coming from the prospective employer or someone else. The ideas that limit us can become internalized, and we believe them and limit ourselves. Sometimes we give up before we even try, or we give up too easily before we have tried enough. Overcoming our own attitudes about what we can and cannot do may be the most difficult obstacle we face.

So, what can we do to break through our barriers? One thing that has inspired me to start trying to overcome my perceived limits was to read about other people who are doing what I want to do, and also who have overcome some of the same obstacles that I face. Some of them have beaten bigger problems than mine. If they can do it, then I should be able to do it too. We all need heroes. If you don't have any, look for some. They are out there. Mentors are great too. A mentor is someone who has been where you are, and is where you want to be, and can help show you the kinds of things that they did to get there that you can try too, and help you to evaluate whether you are on track. Surround yourself as much as you can with people who are successful, and people who believe that you can be successful.

Another thing that is important is knowing what your goal is. Decide what you want to do, consider your strengths and aptitudes, and know your limits. Find out what steps you need to take to get there, and start taking those steps, even if you are starting with baby steps. It can help to write down your goal and plan so that you can evaluate your progress. Get feedback from supportive people also. Let them know what you are trying and what your plans are. Let them read your resume and give you feedback on how you can improve it. Practice your interviewing skills with a friend.

One consideration is that you may need education or training in order to reach your long-term employment goal. Or you may need treatment of your condition in order to be your best at a long- or short-term employment goal, or education. If you're having a hard time working already, you may need some support in order to get the education and/or treatment that you need in order to be able to support yourself. You may have family or friends or community or church affiliations that can help. Let them help, and then when you are in a position to help someone else, then you can give back. What goes around comes around.

There are also government resources. One that can be particularly helpful is vocational rehabilitation. Vocational rehabilitation is for anyone who has any kind of disabling condition that is an impediment to employment. First they provide treatment, and then training and other resources to help you be able to work. There is no cost to you unless you have resources available and can clearly afford to make a contribution. Look in the phone book under state government, or search the internet for vocational rehabilitation and your location (state or province).

Many resources are available online. Here are a few to check out:


Wendy Reiersen Thompson, aka "Rapunzel", has just re-entered the world of employment after finishing a B.A. in psychology, and hopes to continue on to graduate school. She is currently working as a youth supervisor and as a mental health assistant.




Last updated: 20 Dec 2004
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 20 Dec 2004
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