Responses from employers, when they have discovered that I have schizoaffective disorder, have been wide ranging. This has been from the humiliation of being marched unceremoniously from the premises, by a ridiculous number of panicked little men in ill-fitting suits, or to the wonderful rare occurrence of the university HR department last month, who talked me through my fear of speaking to a lecture hall full of first year students.
I first began my wobbly journey to what is now self-employment, just after recovering from my first major psychotic episode at the age of 20. I had been rocked by paranoia, hallucinations and delusions for well over a year and had moved back to stay with my parents. This was pretty humiliating as I had always valued my independence. I was in such a state I could barely leave the house and was waking them several times a night to check that they had not, as my delusions were telling me, been murdered by an intruder as they slept. I was unable to wash, dress myself or read a book and spent my days mostly smoking one cigarette after another and talking back to the persecutory voices that were coming from the radio.
This was the late 90s and before people began to feel confident to be at all open about mental health conditions. Stigma and prejudice were then rife. Since then, with more people speaking out, it has become slightly better but there is still a very long way to go; only around 8% of people who experience schizophrenia are presently employed.
I am open about my diagnosis now, since it is a great hope of mine that being candid about the sheer normality of experiencing a mental health condition, will help generate a change in the way we regard ourselves as a society.
Not just in terms of those who are experiencing mental ill health but also in the treatment of each and every one of us. The way in which we can do this is in valuing the qualities that all of us bring to society, not just those who appear to be high flyers. There is value in all of us, since we are much greater than the sum of our parts.
Shortly after my rejection from my first job, I worked for a very kind pub landlord. Bless that man, I’m weeping as I type this to think of his incredible consideration and kindness for refusing to give up on me when I was so unwell. He spoke to me kindly with each demotion saying, “I’ve just the thing for you” or “I think you’ll be good at this”. True enough, the washing up was one of the best jobs I have ever had. I was able to listen to music as I scrubbed pans which also helped drown out the sound of my colleague, who tended to talk to herself as much as I did.
That landlord’s kindness taught me more about work than the actual work I did there and it is something that has continued to sustain me. I realise now that he could see my potential. Not as an employee (I was a rubbish employee at the time since I had so much medication on board) but he saw my value as a person. He wasn’t lying to me either when he told me that things would improve because, although I was a rubbish kitchen employee, he was teaching me something useful.
I realise that the value of a good workplace is that we are all valued. He valued me because his own work was to improve the human condition. He had the deep and human gift of compassion. The ways to challenge the forces of decline, which are at work in some areas of society, are through the loving work done in our world. The composite of all our efforts can have an effect. Good done anywhere is good done everywhere. That kind of humanity is passed onto others. What he was losing in terms of revenue from my rubbish veg prep, he was building in the future confidence in myself. This is how kindness works.
I think we need to reassess what we value in society; whether coming out top in something is really as important as being inclusive? Many people fear disabilities, pain or vulnerability and yet we will, without exception, all experience these things in some form at some point.
Unless we are children, who live in the unfiltered present, we often make the mistake of pre-judgement.
I’ve had some very amusing questions from people since I began being open about my diagnosis. Apart from one person who asked me if I “get a bit stabby”, I generally welcome these questions.
Answering them allows me to challenge people’s fear and dissipate judgement. In fact in my experience, it is far better to ask people the questions you have outright rather than assuming things about people. It is better to be curious and ask something than risk being stuck in the restrictive lack of empathy that lies in prejudice.
People with a mental health condition can always tell you politely if you’re wrong. If you ask a stupid question, then you can both have the opportunity to laugh later together. The opposite of prejudice is being open minded and without preconceptions. Don’t look through people - ask them something about themselves; start a conversation, connect.
Some people are bound to ask silly questions but actually, no question is silly. In one of his paradoxes of logic, the philosopher Wittgenstein said, “If people did not do silly things then nothing intelligent would get done.” I think then if the silly questions are asked, we might get to see the intelligent answers and they might change us all for the better.
One of the ways this could be done is by valuing everyone in the workplace. It is too easy to say that the mentally ill are of no value to a working environment. A diverse workforce, both physically and mentally, is vital to the future of our businesses, our schools, our universities and our health and wealth as a nation.
Many of us classed as mentally ill have a great contribution to make to all of our lives, but are not being allowed to do this because of the fear of employers to give us purposeful meaningful work. Nobody wants to be unemployed and yet paradoxically we have widespread reluctance to employ people in a compassionate and responsible manner, according to their capabilities.
We can, all of us, do something to address this.
It is not outside our capabilities to reserve our judgement of others. We don’t know other people’s stories without asking them.
It is not outside our abilities to recognise the diverse talent of others and to stop underestimating them. It is not outside our means and compassion to employ people from a wider range of situations, experiences, talents and environments.
If we can stop underestimating each other, or condemning one another for our differences and start being inclusive then, without a doubt, each and every one of us will gain. After all, everything that divides or isolates us prevents us from reaching our collective human potential.
Read more from Alice on her blog.
Check out Rethink Schizophrenia to help change public attitudes towards schizophrenia, which is still deeply misunderstood.