On Mental Illness: Give Yourself a Break

By Jack Bragen
Monday August 29, 2011 - 11:38:00 AM

A common myth says that mentally ill people need to “get with it,” get up off the sofa, and get to work; that we’re lazy; and if we just tried harder and would put more effort into life, our problems would evaporate. I’m here to tell you that, more often than not, this idea is untrue. The belief that if we just, “get up and run ten miles a day” then our problems would disappear, is just more of the same punishment, as well as self-punishment, that got many of us into trouble in the first place. 

While physical exercise may help with some types of depression, it will do nothing for someone who suffers from delusions. Exercising the body a lot will sometimes make delusions worse. Rather than being cured by physical exercise, you will become an in-shape psychotic person. 

While a person with mental illness may appear to be lazy, this is usually not so. You might observe someone sitting still on a sofa, or even laying down and rarely getting up; you may observe what appears to be a poor work attitude. This may not be caused by laziness. A person with mental illness could be dealing with symptoms such as an anxiety attack or an attack of thoughts. This can cause a person to sit or lie down while they are trying to deal with the resultant suffering and the resultant preoccupation. A case of severe depression can also cause the inability to get up from the sofa. 

When up from the sofa and starting work, the difficulties for a person with mental illness don’t end. If taking antipsychotic medication, these drugs can interfere with performing work. Antipsychotic medications, because of their depressing effect, can make work unbearable. Or sometimes, medication can slow down a person’s work to a level that’s not competitive with that of other workers. The poor work performance or the inappropriate behavior of leaving, that a supervisor might observe, could be caused by the medication, the illness, or a combination of both. 

Paranoia is another reason for not having an easy time at work. A person who has delusions and/or paranoia could incorrectly perceive that coworkers dislike him or her. Treatment on the job that seems harsh and which is related to getting the job done could mistakenly be taken personally; or this treatment could be unduly painful due to not having a thick skin. A person with mental illness may not feel “safe” on the job on an interpersonal level. We may be in constant fear of being fired or of not being able to master the job. All of this creates a further drag on the total effort available. 

The world of work and other energetic pursuits can be filled with frustration for someone with mental illness, partly because the limitations are not usually related to a lack of intelligence or of basic ability. We are not fixed by just “trying harder.” Doing so can create long-term damage. Because there is a legitimate impairment to doing work, to “running ten miles a day” or to whatever activity you believe ought to be done and isn’t getting done, the person with mental illness should refrain from self blame. He or she should refrain from a work ethic that is so unyielding that it becomes self punishment. The mentally ill person should put effort into life. However, that person should not be judged if their effort doesn’t look as vigorous as that of unimpaired persons. 

And yet, persons with mental illness ought to be judged on an individual basis. And prospective employers should not rule out the sensibleness of hiring or working with us. While there are some of us who are unready to handle a job or other situation involving getting up from the sofa, there are others who, with very minor adjustments, can keep up with the rest. 

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