October 24, 2011

James, Time to Change bloggerMental health challenges have affected my employment (and employability) ever since I was unceremoniously discharged from the army following a dramatic breakdown at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Within hours I was hospitalised and subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia aged just eighteen. As career blows go, this was a particularly heavy one, and although as soon as I was able to I tried university, I lasted barely a term.

And there I was, still under twenty, and two promising careers completely compromised.

I soon realised I would need to rejoin the world of work at a much lower rung on the ladder and spent two summer seasons working as a day porter at local hotels. I was still struggling to cope with the effects of the medication but I had a strong will to work and an opportunity arose to work for a local farmers’ cooperative where I met my wife. Whilst employed full-time here, I applied for the position of retained firefighter with the Fire & Rescue Service.

I realised my diagnosis, medication and past sections would be big hurdles to overcome but following many medicals over a period of about 18 months I was eventually accepted and spent eight wonderful years serving the local community. It would have been easy to say to myself ‘what’s the point of applying; they’ll never take someone like me,’ but I was aware of falling into the trap of self-stigmatising and eventually my persistence paid off. I wasn’t treated any differently because of my condition and although my colleagues knew about my health problems, it was never an issue when we worked together.

Following my redundancy from the farmers’ cooperative I worked in sales for a number of years until a big relapse in 2003 saw me admitted to a secure hospital following an incident on an acute ward at the district hospital. I had a relatively short stay in secure services of 6 months but the experience had nearly cost me my marriage and home. I quickly realised that having a diagnosis (it was now bi-polar schizo-affective disorder), a long gap on my cv, being on medication and now a criminal record, I was going to struggle to find a job where these were essential or desirable criteria. However, I did find some work in sales thanks to some understanding employers - until in 2005 I made the decision to go self-employed.

At first work was very hard to come by and I supplemented my income by working part-time in a call centre and as a taxi controller at weekends, but then I was offered a freelance position with Mental Health Media as Open Up regional coordinator for the south west, which led to my current work with Time To Change. I can honestly say that going self-employed was one of my better decisions and although I couldn’t have done it without the support of my wife, the work/life balance I have now is the best it has ever been.

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