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Mental Health and Employment

By Chan Lishan, Mental Health Advocate

Finding work in competitive jobs- a step-by-step approach

More and more, I am hearing that people with mental health problems aspire to work in PMET (professional, manager, executive, technician) jobs. They do not want to do less prestigious jobs such as data-entry. Yet, for a variety of reasons, it is difficult for people with mental health problems to find work as professionals, especially when they have recently been discharged from the hospital.

I have a master’s degree from a top university and, like many such graduates, had high hopes for my career. My first job upon recovery was at a shopping centre and it was not what I envisioned for myself after my studies. But even though it was not my dream job, it did help me. It gave my days some structure and I earned a living for myself. Instead of sleeping in bed all day, I slowly built up my confidence and self-respect.

Later on, as I grew stronger, I was able to find work as a technical writer for a large multinational company, a communications officer in a research organisation, and as a part-time polytechnic lecturer. Despite my mental health problem, I was able to find work because I displayed the traits that employers seek. Traits, such as willingness to learn, effective communication skills, inner drive and- because of my bouncing back from illness- resilience, were seen as critical to my potential to contribute to my prospective employers.

Perhaps too much regard has been given to gaining employment as a professional, at least in the initial stages of recovery. For any job can be meaningful when one is recovering from mental illness. In fact, getting a job may be the best way of recovering. Through reintegrating back into society, the individual not only finds new purpose but also contributes to society.

In the recovery process, though, getting into a new routine and meeting the demands of full-time employment can be challenging. So, it may be prudent to take it slowly and gradually. In other words, a step-by-step approach might be the solution to finding work that is sufficiently engaging and competitively compensated.

To tell or not to tell?

I did not want to keep my mental health problem a secret, even though I was encouraged to do so by allied health professionals and even anti-stigma advocates. As I honestly filled in each job application form with reference to schizophrenia, I often received no interview or reply, or at best, a flurry of questions about my dosage of medication and what it was like to have a psychotic episode. But it nearly always led to no job offer.

Although I was very disappointed by the response I received from my prospective employers, I did not want to lie on the application form. I resolved the dilemma of wanting to be honest and not disclosing my illness by applying to private-sector companies, which did not always request my mental health status. This strategy met with some success. Later on, as I became increasingly open to telling people about my mental health condition, I saw that it was possible to use my experience with illness to showcase my strengths to my employers.

Employment

I am sharing my experience of disclosure in the workplace so that I may encourage people with mental health problems to be open about their conditions to their respective employers, potential or current. I am not saying that it is easy. There is still stigma in the workplace, which may negatively affect how people with mental health problems are treated. It may be difficult to find any work, let alone satisfying and meaningful work.

But it is not impossible to find work as a professional, even if you disclose your mental health condition. Be patient. There are enlightened employers out there who are willing to give opportunities and chances to people with mental health problems. And society will change over time, so that it will get easier. If we are not open to talking about mental health now, we will be making it even harder for ourselves and others in the future. The change begins with us.   

Creating supporting settings for the future

Finally, it may be worth asking if we can create a society where people with mental health problems do not have to start afresh and find new work because they have lost their jobs on admission to hospital.

Many people I know with mental health problems lost their job or previous engagements on admission to hospital, and were thereafter unable to return. This was exactly what happened to me. My research scholarship was terminated and I was discouraged from resuming my studies even after I had recovered. Because there was no understanding and supportive environment in place to accommodate return to study for persons with mental health problems, I was unable to further my education, something which I had greatly desired.

Perhaps, if there was more awareness among employers and educational institutions, that mental illness is indeed treatable, and of ways to support people with mental health problems, more would be able to fulfil their true potential and add value to the organisations that they work or study in.

A member of National Healthcare Group ISO   Comm Chest Award Bronze