It was never part of my plan to work in mental health. In fact as a student in Cambridge in 1990 I had no plan for my life at all. It was then that my psychosis suddenly struck. Although I managed to graduate a year later I was left with a future of medication, incarceration, and no hope of getting better. I certainly never believed I would ever work.
3 years later I was deemed by mental health services to be untreatable and likely to commit suicide within 6 months. But they were wrong. Somehow in 1999 I managed to get sufficiently well to return to Cambridge to train as teacher. But of course I was left with the dilemma of what to say at a job interview.
Having been on benefits for 8 years I had little choice but to declare my illness. As many readers might expect, teaching did not want to know me. The Disability Discrimination Act didn’t seem to matter to many of the 150 school I applied to.
So what next? There seemed only one way forward, to use the experience of my illness to help others who were ill. So started my completely unplanned career in mental health. I was completely open at all interviews but firmly discouraged from sharing anything with the people I was employed to help. But I took little notice.
I was tasked to challenge stigma, discrimination, and negative attitudes to mental health
17 years after first getting ill and now fortified by risperidone I was appointed the very first Mental Wellbeing Advisor at the University of Hertfordshire. Among the many other responsibilities I was tasked to challenge stigma, discrimination, and negative attitudes to mental health. Yet once again I was discouraged from disclosing my own story. It was a bizarre paradox, they encouraged students and staff to disclose yet didn’t think I should. Well if I couldn’t be open who on earth else could?
Not to be discouraged I publicly disclosed at a major lecture on services users working in services to a room full of students and professional colleagues in 2009. This led to invitations to lecture to mental health nursing students, social work students, CBT trainees, and eventually to psychiatrists through our Post Graduate Medical School.
Now I have a voice that people across Hertfordshire want to hear
Now I have a voice that people across Hertfordshire want to hear. If the feedback from my lectures is to be believed my story has changed many people’s attitudes. I hope that by doing that in a limited way I can help us get better professionals in the future.
I confessed on wider scale when my written account of my illness was published under my own name in 2011; that was a tough decision to make.
It takes courage to stand up and be counted when confronted with the stigma that has been associated with mental illness for too long. I have always applauded those who have spoken out.
too many firms refuse to employ people with mental illness
I had a long and tough road to employment. In the current climate I fear that is a journey that many others will have to undertake in the coming years. It is true that way too many firms refuse to employ people with mental illness. But that is against the law. One of the great steps forward in my view is that the Equality Act has banned health screening prior to jobs being offered.
There is no simple answer to the question of should I declare? It has to be an individual’s choice. But little support will come if an employer doesn’t know about a disability.
2 criteria have to be met for people to declare
As I see it 2 criteria have to be met for people to declare. Firstly they have to feel safe to do so. Secondly, there has to be something in it for them. If the law is followed a disabled person must be interviewed if he or she meets the minimum criteria for a role. I know to my own cost that that does not always happens. But as my story shows, it can work to my advantage.
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