On Mental Illness: Employment Revisited

By Jack Bragen
Tuesday May 03, 2011 - 09:03:00 PM

Having a job, as I have said in past columns, is a source of self-esteem for people in general, and more so for persons with mental illness. It is an indication of competence, one of survival skill, and it is an indication that a person has for the time being mastered the disability aspect of their mental health issues. A person can program as many thoughts of self worth into oneself as possible, it does not replace the sensation of taking a paycheck to the bank. Before I met my wife, I dabbled in responding to personal ads. It turned out that, in the world of singles, being disabled and unemployed was a deal-breaker. Without employment, I never got past the stage of talking to someone on the phone. 

I also responded to personal ads at another time when I was self-employed, and the deal breaker didn’t come until much later, (and was related to issues other than disability). It doesn’t matter to most people if there is something “wrong” with you, such as a mental illness, as long as you can hold down employment. Work, perhaps unfairly, is a universal source of a person being valued. 

Classism exists. When a person with mental illness gets a job sweeping floors and cleaning toilets, a job which many practitioners in the mental health treatment system think is suitable employment for us, we soon discover that such a job is no “chick magnet,” or “dude magnet” and that such a job doesn’t get us any respect. When I supported myself delivering pizza, I couldn’t get a date. Being employed at a job that’s at the bottom rung brings less respect than being unemployed. And yet, there are some “low functioning” persons with mental illness who seem to be thrilled with such a job. 

A lack of confidence was sometimes a negative factor in my work attempts. Another was my erroneous belief that I ought to be comfortable. A third factor was the low level paranoia I experienced that made me nervous or fearful. I sometimes had difficulty relating to coworkers and employers. When I was more successful, I managed well with coworkers and employers, and was able to bond with them to an extent. If I wasn’t fearful in a work situation, it would probably work for me. 

My level of efficiency was rarely a factor for keeping or not keeping a job. Apparently, if I was happy at work, it meant that my boss would be happy. If I had a chronic slowness due to the medication, it was counteracted by my attention to detail and my quality of work. 

Concerning the belief that I ought to be comfortable, it means a lack of hardening. When I was in my twenties, I was involved in a cult group that valued peace, serenity, and continuous happiness. My participation in this group wrecked my ability to endure the difficulties of work. Instead of trying to learn to constantly be happy, a person is better off learning not to be afraid to feel painful emotions that inevitably occur. If a person isn’t afraid to feel something, it makes them equipped for the difficulties of life, and for the meaningful and painful losses that everyone must endure. 

For now, I choose not to attempt regular employment, and would rather spend my productive time writing. Since I am aware of the factors that would contribute to success in a job, it increases my chances of succeeding once hired. As a “high functioning” person with a mental illness, I am similar to many of those in my position: I can work some of the time, in some work situations yet must be careful in how I approach it. Too many work hours, or a work situation which is too demanding, could push me toward excessive strain. When that happens, a safety mechanism that my subconscious mind has adopted would lead me to quitting the job in an unbecoming manner. I used to quit jobs like this a lot, when I initially overestimated myself. 

Because of being on Social Security, any job I get must pay almost nothing so that my benefits remain intact, or it must pay a lot and have medical benefits. Anything in between these extremes leaves me worse off than remaining unemployed. Social Security personnel claim that there are work incentives. They can repeat this lie until it becomes a mantra. Working jeopardizes the benefits and yanks out from under you the Social Security safety net. This situation encourages staying at home and becoming an artist, a writer, or, if you can handle it, going back to school and getting a college degree. 

I plan to cover this subject more in future issues. Your stories about employment, or other subjects, are welcome. I can be reached care of the Planet, or directly at