January 20, 2009

Stop me if you've heard this one before...no actually don't. Having a mental illness makes finding work hard. This might sound many things; astounding, sad, ridiculous, perverse, surprising, frightening, unlikely, justifiable, understandable or just blindingly obvious. You might secretly feel something you would not publicly air. It's nothing to be ashamed of, we all have overt or latent prejudices, but it is most certainly something to be aware of and to open your mind about.

Most of us are familiar with the concept of 'the glass ceiling' in relation to gender in the workplace. The belief, no, the fact, that women are exposed to opportunities they will never be allowed to realise. The employer is seen as blameless as they have complied with anti-discrimination legislation, but the woman knows she has been denied the chance, knows she has been wronged despite her suitability for the role, purely because she is a woman. There is no way of absolutely proving beyond doubt this is true, but we know it happens don't we?

I have for sometime been aware of a very similar scenario, unfortunately I had to suffer the worst excesses of the prejudice and stigma involved to become fully aware of the problem. Again there is no way of proving it definitively, but again we know it happens. I refer to the plight of those of us who have been diagnosed mentally ill. In some ways we are treated even more harshly. Ours is not a glass ceiling, more a glass ceiling and a ladder with no bottom rungs.

The term 'mentally ill' covers such a range of individual illnesses from anxiety to schizophrenia, substance abuse to clinical depression, bipolar to OCD that in some respects it is inadequate and an unwitting misnomer. These conditions are vastly different to each other and each complex in their own way. But one thing we all have in common is the conditions are invisible. They are not treated with plaster casts or sticking plasters, and don't require stitches or crutches. They do not have a straight forward diagnosis, much less a simple prognosis. This leads in large part to the stigma, which is attached to mental illness. This stigma is the factor Time to Change is now challenging.

Socially, this is a problem. Admitting to mental illness is seen as a sign of weakness or inadequacy and commonly engenders a response which is overly patronising, disdainful or aggressive. The latter is what we depressives call the “pull yourself together" syndrome. If only it were that simple. Have a nice hot bath, a shave; put your best threads on and everything in the garden will be rosy. I doubt that advice has ever been offered in “The Lancet" because during bouts of depression, just getting out of bed can be a real achievement in itself.

Beyond the social stigma is an equally serious and personally crippling problem. Having recovered sufficiently to look forwards in a positive frame of mind, how do I find employment?

If your 'friends' and family fail to understand the condition, how can we expect potential employers to comprehend? With a vast gap on your CV, this leaves the applicant with a potentially life changing dilemma.
The options such as they are. Lie about your condition taking the risk you may lose your job upon the employer finding out or being frank from the outset, risking never gaining employment at in the first place.

Mental illness is categorised as a disability and should be treated as such by employers and potential employers. The Disability Discrimination Act defines a disabled person as someone with 'a physical or mental impairment, which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities'. Many efforts have been made (in however much of a ham fisted fashion) to accommodate physically disabled people in the workplace. Sadly the same cannot be said for those of us with mental illness. The stigma, borne largely of ignorance, which surrounds mental illness has much to do with this failure.

My experience is that getting a foot in the door can be a challenge of Everest proportions. Following my initial depression, the numbers; 150 plus applications (6 interviews whoo-hoo!), much worn shoe leather and many tears later I found employment which I have clung to, limpet like in spite of further periods of depression which have served to highlight further problems. You see an employer can claim to understand mental illness; they may even have convinced themselves they can comprehend the symptoms and the ramifications therein but when push comes to shove without a plaster cast, a scar or a stay in hospital employers remain ignorant as to why a person with a mental illness may need time, sometimes prolonged periods of time, away from the work environment. This not only makes the sufferer feel marginalised, it affects their career progression and chances of a full working life, by which I mean not only realising your full potential as a member of the workforce but also enjoying the social aspects of employment.

We spend a third of our lives at work and a significant proportion of the remainder socialising with work colleagues, therefore isolation at work can leave sufferers, already prone to low mood, feeling desperate and in many cases suicidal.

So if you have heard this story or one of its kind before, don't just click elsewhere, tell your friends, family, work colleagues and anyone else who might listen. The only way to break a stigma is to give it fresh air, talk about it, lessen its shock value and recognise this issue is about as mainstream as it gets. Remember its 1 in 4.

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Too many people are made to feel ashamed. By sharing your story, you can help spread knowledge and perspective about mental illness that could change the way people think about it.