Updated: May 10, 2022
There are multiple challenges involved in seeking employment as someone with a diagnosis of mental illness. If you are someone with that diagnosis you are not unaware of this fact. Having supported folks looking for employment, I think there are some challenges that have to be called out. Too often we internalize the messages the outer world is giving us and hold them in our heart and mind as who we are. So, let’s talk about it. Every person is unique as is each journey through life. What I am about to say doesn’t apply to everyone but certainly in my experience applies to enough people that it needs to be talked about.
The first challenge: timing
It is not unusual for people to enter the mental health system and get diagnosed as they pass through the tumultuous years of high school and higher education. These are critical developmental years where we figure out who we are and what we want to do. It’s a sorting process. A process of try-ons and discards until the magic of finding that right fit of personality and career occurs. It takes time and energy and resources. Often with the onset of mental illness those critical factors are in short supply. Time and energy may be eaten up by doctor’s visits, hospitalizations or symptoms that just get in the way.
Likewise, resources, like money for school, can be redirected to efforts to cope with symptoms and the aftermath of hospitalizations. More concretely, finishing high school or completing college may get interrupted during this time. As possible stepping stones to careers and employment, this disruption can significantly impact future options. A higher education is an expectation. The lack of a degree closes doors immediately.
The second challenge: stigma
Once diagnosed with a mental illness, the stigma becomes an external and internal barrier and challenge. We do not treat those diagnosed kindly. Fear and apprehension is often the initial response. But worse, individuals accept this societal view as a statement about themselves. Often as a statement that proclaims”-there is something wrong with you.”” It’s your fault.” “You are defective”. Stigma presents itself iin various ways, but generally results in variety of self- demeaning beliefs which can accompany you on every job search and on every interview. They prevent individuals from creatively explaining the resume gaps or lack of higher education.
The third challenge: recovery time
It is often the case that moving into recovery from mental illness takes time, sometimes decades. It is often the case that managing symptoms, stopping the cycle of hospitalizations, gaining some confidence and autonomous functioning skills takes the person into middle age and beyond. Ageism is a barrier to employment. It may be a benefit when accompanied by years of experience.
Reframing challenges as gifts
Now these are not the only challenges for certain. But they need to be called out for what they are, External factors. Factors to be taken into account for sure. But these challenges do not need to define you. Name them. Do not pull them into your being. Reframe them as the gifts they could be. There are many people who have gone before you. They have been diagnosed, hospitalized and stigmatized. They have lost days, months and sometimes years, just like you. Yet they found recovery, remembered their dreams, re-created their goals and marched forward. It can be done. You can do it too.
Find role models
Find those folks who can model the path for you. They exist on websites and in webinars. They have written books and produced blogs and podcasts. They speak at conferences and produce Ted talks and Youtube videos. Keep these challenges separate from who you are. You are not them.