ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Expectations vs. Opportunities

Jack Bragen
Friday December 14, 2018 - 04:13:00 PM

Most people with severe mental illness can not handle the same levels of responsibility as most non-afflicted people. When expectations are too high, it can bring about various problems. 

Too high of expectations can be as damaging to a mentally ill person as expecting little or nothing. In most instances, the treatment system wants us to be passive recipients of treatment. This is unhealthy. However, expectations that are too difficult to attain are also unhealthy. We need to stay in the middle ground. This includes giving ourselves "reasonable accommodations." 

In some instances, we are our own worst tormenters. 

We should realize that a psychiatric disability is legitimate. Thus, anything we can handle beyond the very basics (of taking medication, staying out of the hospital when possible, basic self-care and basic responsibilities) should be considered gravy. 

Many people with mental illness believe that we should be working. Yet, when we encounter the demands of many jobs, we may find that it is too difficult. Working against us are the fact of being medicated, the symptoms of the illness that medication only partly resolves, and the fact of possibly feeling "different" since most coworkers probably do not have a disability. 

Being able to interact in a "social" way (the chit-chat and interaction of a workplace) with coworkers and supervisors, and even forming bonds, are essential to succeeding in a job. If you feel alienated from coworkers and your supervisor, this will significantly interfere with succeeding at a job. 

Because of the above, there are three factors or more that interfere with a mentally ill person succeeding in a job. That is not to say you can't do it. Far be it from me to prognosticate that mentally ill people can't work--many do, and do very well at it. But there are barriers. If we can succeed in a job, we should acknowledge that we have done something big. 

If, for now, succeeding at a job is too difficult, we should not be down on ourselves. A psychiatric disability is a legitimate reason for not being in a job. Yet not being employed is a common reason that many mentally ill people experience guilt and apprehension, or suffer from low self-esteem. These are common reactions to unemployment, but they are unnecessary. Learning that it is okay not to work at a job is usually an emotional step in the right direction. This is because if you are disabled, no one should expect you to do the improbable. 

Sometimes expectations come from family. Family should realize that a psychiatric disability is a disability. You may appear able-bodied. Yet, medication can hinder performing competitively in many positions. And, going off of medication against medical advice is not a viable option. 

Notwithstanding, many disabled people would still like to work. Doing so keeps a person out of trouble and gives them something to look forward to. If that is you, then you should keep in mind that you don't have to do this, you want to. Secondly, you should do a job that you enjoy, or perhaps one that gives you a feeling of accomplishment. The money is secondary. If you hate your job, it's not worth it, unless the alternative, realistically, is that you're going to starve. 

Expectations in general for mentally ill people tend to be lower than what we can accomplish. But if we "present" extraordinarily well, it doesn't mean we don't have limitations. We may look and speak as though we are very capable people, but sometimes this impression can be misleading. Mentally ill people often have limitations that other people cannot see. And this leads to rough treatment when we say we can't do something. 

None of this is going to be perfect. I can not tolerate most job situations, and I can be hired at fewer than those at which I should be given a chance. People wouldn't guess that from the impression I make. 

Expectations should be kept at a minimum, but we should be given opportunities to fulfill our potentials. 


Jack Bragen is a Martinez author, has been writing this column for eight years, and his books are available for purchase on the web.