ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Things With Which Most of us Struggle

By Jack Bragen
Thursday April 18, 2013 - 05:58:00 PM

It occurred to me that a column about the things that matter the most to persons with mental illness would be fairly "on the mark." Getting and keeping adequate housing is pretty high on the priority list. Additionally, we must deal with the following life difficulties: getting and remaining on the right medications; surviving on the very limited income we have; relationships, both finding them and making them work; finding and maintaining a meaningful regular activity (or otherwise, what to do with our time.) In this week's column, I will try to briefly touch upon all of the above. 

In order to have good housing, income is necessary. On the money made by most persons with chronic mental illness, at least those of us who live on Social Security of some kind, getting and maintaining a HUD certificate or voucher is usually necessary. 

In housing intended for disabled, disadvantaged, and mentally ill persons, harassment is frequent. When I lived in disabled housing, people would come to my door at three in the morning asking for a cigarette. Also in disabled housing, I was physically attacked, and my wife was sexually harassed. 

Living in a halfway decent "normal" apartment in a decent neighborhood, on HUD, is the exception rather than the rule. Most of the persons with mental illness who are also unemployed must endure the hardships of problematic and/or substandard housing. I lived for over five years in a unit where I was eventually forced out through intimidation and harassment by people who likely had a meth lab in the building, or who at least were dealing drugs. 

Problematic housing can be difficult for persons with mental illness to endure, since our illness already provides us with enough difficulties, without adding genuine threats and hardships, rather than just the problems that we imagine. It can be a doubly rocky road to try and get well when we have a dangerous or thorny situation on our hands. 

Getting and staying on the right medications can be a trial and error enterprise. Sometimes, after getting on the right medications at the right dosages, a person with mental illness makes the grave mistake of thinking they're cured. When things are going well, it isn't time to go off medications; instead it means that something was done right which ought to be continued. 

Living on Social Security benefits is difficult, and means that we must do without many of the things money can buy-things most Americans take for granted. When the rent and bills are paid, and perhaps some food purchased, the money is used up. If we try to bolster our income with a job, our benefits are reduced. The amount of red tape involved in reporting wages can be daunting. Furthermore, if a person on SSI gets a job for a brief period of time and then loses that job, it can take months for benefits to go back to the previous level. Meanwhile, an SSI recipient is in dire economic straits. 

Persons with mental illness may deeply desire a meaningful relationship with a partner, yet may not be emotionally ready for it. Anyone with or without a mental health diagnosis may need to experience a few relationships that don't work before they learn how to handle a relationship, what to do, and what not to do. Some people with mental illness are socially underdeveloped, while others do just as well as people without a mental illness. Gaining social development can be challenging, since it seems to be mostly a trial and error, hard knocks endeavor. Someone with a mental illness isn't always psychiatrically stable enough to handle this. This is rough, since persons with mental illness have the same desires as anyone else. 

Persons with mental illness often choose to do volunteer work to fill up the time. However, the volunteer jobs that exist in present day often have a higher level of expectations than they once did. It was several years back that I obtained a volunteer position doing office work. I called in sick one time, and after that, the work venue couldn't use me. It almost seems as though the expectations of a volunteer job exceed those of paid employment. When persons with mental illness try to work, whether this is at a volunteer or paid position, most of us require more sick days compared to someone without a disability. Very few employers are willing to tolerate this. 

The above paragraph explains a reason for wanting to be self-employed and for recommending this to others. It may be quite a challenge to create a profitable business. However, there are numerous other reasons than making a profit that make self-employment highly valuable. A self employed person gains great experience that they would not get otherwise. 

Running a small company, even one without employees, can be a fulfilling and fun activity. It also lends social stature. Making a profit is difficult in most small businesses, for persons with or without a disability. The amount of effort required in making a profit can be daunting. However, self employment is usually worth doing, regardless of this. 

At a self employed position, you don't have to worry about being fired. I know of two persons with mental illness who are presently self-employed, and both of them seem quite happy with what they do. One person is a tutor and the other does housecleaning. When I was self-employed I did electronic repair, before electronics became almost universally throwaway. 

I can be contacted with your comments at: but I can not give advice to individuals, since I am not credentialed to do so.