On Mental Illness: The Expectation of Employment

By Jack Bragen
Monday October 03, 2011 - 01:04:00 PM

Most persons who have severe mental illness would like to work, if they possibly can. We are often prevented from working by the barriers against us in society and not just by the disability. Having a severe mental illness is a perfectly legitimate reason for not having a job. It would not be accurate to call us bums or freeloaders, any more than someone who suffers blindness or a broken back. While our disability is invisible, it is just as real as a person’s disability that is plainly visible, such as a missing limb. 

Many persons with mental disabilities, when not employed, have a lot of guilt over it. And this is not necessary. Often the persons who are hardest on us are us. The belief that we ought to be employed, while not accurate, can be at the level of obsession. It can create life situations that lead to a relapse of the illness. 

It adds to our problems when family members chime in on our job predicament and criticize us for failed work attempts. It is not supportive to lay guilt and blame on someone for not succeeding in a situation where that person may have tried their best, and had already supplied him or her self with an adequate amount of anguish over their “failure.” 

Just as someone with a physical disability can work at a job in which the disability doesn’t interfere, there are some jobs that a person with a psychiatric disability can readily maintain. Physical work that requires fast movement is often off the table due to the slowing effect of the medication. Skilled work in a situation in which there is little or no immediate pressure has often been a fit for me. However, it is hard to find this in a job; usually employers create a situation in which they can get as much production from each employee as possible. Thus, in my twenties I was good at electronics but often could not handle the job situations. I often tried to do electronic repair as a self employed technician, but this was rarely profitable. 

A lot of persons with mental illness are thrilled to even work at a “bottom of the barrel” job such as sweeping floors. I once did such jobs and have had my fill. It would be nice if “real” professional employment somehow became available to more people with chronic mental illness. However, among those with a severe form and an early onset of illness, professional employment is relatively rare. 

This is not to discount that there are persons with mental illness for whom work isn’t a problem. They may or may not disclose their diagnosis at work. However, the difficulties I am discussing in this article may not exist for them, or may have been overcome years ago. Employment should be embarked upon with an open mind to the idea that it may not turn out to be difficult, or a person may be more than equal to the difficulties. 

I was able to work at various jobs and earn a modicum of pay during my young adulthood. I eventually developed a case of burnout. I attribute part of this to my fighting against the restraining effects of antipsychotic medication. Antipsychotic medication has quite a depressing and slowing effect that ordinarily would make someone unable to work at a competitive rate. I tried to compensate for this by increasing my effort level. The result was that I was able to hold down some of the jobs at which I was hired, but later developed the burnout that I mentioned. 

At some point in life, a person with mental illness may be forced to apply for Social Security in order to have money to live on. I know that there are a lot of middle-class and wealthy people who complain about SSI recipients living off of their tax money and not having to work, as they do. We live in a society in which those who lack the ability to survive are taken care of rather than left to die. Telling us to “go get a job,” comes from a hard nosed attitude that lacks understanding. 

I believe that persons with a disability, if they can, ought to find some way of contributing to society rather than simply taking up space. For example, I have a relative who does volunteer work when not employed. Even babysitting for other family members, I believe, is a good enough thing to do, as opposed to sitting around in front of the television or getting drunk with buddies. In my view it doesn’t matter if one’s venture is intended to make a profit, or not. Either way, one can do something that is useful to oneself and others rather than being a blob. And I believe that most persons with psychiatric disabilities feel the same way as I do; that they ought to do something useful with their time. 

I don’t believe that a requirement to earn our own way in life would be relevant for most people with a major mental illness. We ought to stop comparing ourselves to this standard. And we ought not be looked down upon or condescended upon for having a disability. We deserve the same respect as anyone else does, and that includes respect from ourselves. 

As always, I welcome your comments and stories which can be sent care of The Planet, or directly to me at Also, please note my science fiction short story e-book for Kindle, “Selected Short Fiction of Jack Bragen” which is currently available on Amazon, and my blog, at which has recipes, commentary and fiction.