Being someone who has worked a number of jobs while having schizoaffective disorder and also being a Vocational Counselor and Peer Specialist, a number of issues come to mind in thinking about work and mental health.
After my second episode of psychosis I had been out of work for over a year. I was worried about finding a job and it was during the recession in the late 2000’s that I was looking for work. I had a college degree but I wasn’t sure if I was at a point in my mental health recovery where I could do work commensurate to my degree, that being an English major and Business minor. I lamented at the prospect of not being able to utilize my degree but I also wasn’t as functional as I had been before my episodes.
The thing I didn’t realize at the time though was that as I would progress in my recovery, the possibilities for my life would expand. What I was able to do in the year after my second episode wasn’t what I was eventually able to do in later years. In the beginning, I thought my mental health condition would be permanently debilitating, however, I learned that it wasn’t.
Beginning to work again was one of the best things I could do for my mental health. I know there was a while where I was waiting to feel better and then I was going to work, however, I waited for months after my second episode and still nothing had changed. I decided I needed to work first and I had to just deal with the mental health component. I applied to K-Mart and I was hired to work in the lawn and garden section having had prior experience landscaping.
The thing I learned was that work boosted my mental and emotional health substantially. This has also been the case with a number of people I’ve counseled vocationally and through peer specialist work. Many times people don’t feel well enough to work but I encourage them to find jobs. The process of having a job and going to work is a major boost mentally and emotionally. I originally thought my mental and emotional health would improve before working, however it was the opposite.
For me, this boost came for a number of reasons. Employment always has tangible benefits such as health insurance and a paycheck, however there are many intangible benefits as well. A few of those were forcing me out of the house, socializing with new people, the exercise from moving around the workplace, the feeling of accomplishment and meaningfulness that I had from doing the work, and feeling like I had a productive and busy day. One issue I had with mental illness and unemployment was just overall lethargy.
I know when I was unemployed I felt fairly meaningless, lackluster, and exhausted. Part of me had difficulty parsing through whether this was mental illness or whether it was unemployment and I found a good portion of it came from unemployment whereas some of it was from my mental health condition. My cognition picked up a bit when I started working and my emotional disposition improved as well. Some of this was just from spending days being productive and using my mind and body. Research states the mind and body tend to have more energy when they’re being utilized as opposed to when they’re not. The other component to this was that I was taking steps towards my life goals.
Some of those goals were living independently, being able to find meaningful work, and being able to have a good paycheck so I could do the things I wanted to like hanging out with friends, golfing, and having money to support myself. Originally it felt like my life goals were nowhere within reach after my second episode whereas working again was proof to myself that maybe I could have a full life again, which had been a major question looming in my mind starting from my first episode at age 22 and several months after my second episode at age 24. Gaining this first job gave me hope that I could make a full recovery.
After working at K-Mart I networked to find my next job at Marriott. Ninety percent of jobs jobs people attain tend to be through networking so it’s really crucial to talk with family, family friends, and just anyone you know to look for opportunities. The other important part about gaining this job was that I had been working at K-Mart for about six months. Many employers are looking for job applicants to have had a job before hiring them. Having a job shows that you’re able to work, you’re wanting to work, that you’re motivated, and it’s always better than not having anything on your resume.
I know many times it can be difficult to find work after a mental health episode and a period of having been unemployed. For these instances it can always be good to recruit the resources of your local government and local employment agencies to see how they can help. There are sometimes disability employers such as NTI at Home who hire specifically knowing people have had disability status. The Federal Government always sets aside a certain number of jobs if you qualify as having disability status. Many bigger companies are also looking to hire people who have disability status given there are tax incentives for doing so.
Sometimes on the application you can fill in whether you’ve had a disability and this can help to get you preferential hiring. If you do disclose you have disability status you’re not required to divulge the specific diagnosis to the employer and by law they cannot ask you during the interviewing process what this is. Many times people worry about disclosing this to employers citing it divulges their mental health condition, but disability status is not just within the mental and emotional health realm therefore divulging you have disability status doesn’t divulge the diagnosis by any means or that you have even had a mental or emotional health condition. In all honesty, I don’t like using the word disability for a mental health condition, but this is just how it’s currently labeled within the job market.
A question I’ve grappled with over the years with employment has been what am I able to do vs. what do I want to do. In the beginning, I wasn’t able to do as much employment wise but working at K-Mart helped me to take my next steps. Even after that I worked for Marriott at the front desk for about eight months and this job was exhausting for me mentally and emotionally but was another helpful step with my mental health. It also provided me money to pay some of my bills, to have a car, and to be able to do some of the things I wanted to outside of work.
For the next several years I worked a few different jobs and the degree of difficulty varied given where I was at with my mental and emotional health. For these several years after my second episode my employment choices had more to do with what I was able to do. These were difficult years for me mental health wise and I struggled pretty hard. Some jobs I was able to keep but I wasn’t interested in doing them whereas others I just couldn’t handle. I worked for an insurance company, telephone customer service, carpentry, landscaping, mail sorting for a lockbox, a mailroom for a pharmaceutical company, and a few other jobs too. From the time after my second episode to my latest job I had twelve different jobs. A lot of this had to do with my mental and emotional health which made it incredibly difficult to stay employed. I eventually did find something that I enjoyed though which was working at a butchery as a meat cutter.
One of the primary reasons I enjoyed this work was because it wasn’t too taxing mentally and emotionally. At this point I was further along in my mental health recovery and I could handle working this job. Working a job that wasn’t overly taxing mentally and emotionally allowed me to write which was what I really wanted to do and this motivated me to stay employed. Continuing with my writing and staying employed long-term was helpful in my mental health recovery. Many people who are wanting to pursue the arts or creative endeavors will look for jobs that allow them to pursue their interests but still pay the bills and allow them to live independently which was exactly what this job was for me.
In prior jobs when I was working and I wasn’t able to pursue creative interests it felt like I was just working to pay the bills, and there was no meaning or purpose in my life. In this instance the meaning and purpose came from endeavors outside of work, but nonetheless my life had more meaning and purpose than it had in prior workplaces which also motivated me to do well at work and to stay employed. I stayed at this job for four years.
I made enough progress mental health wise to get to a point where I could do peer specialist work, which has been a passion of mine and which has been a job which has been really meaningful to me and has also allowed me to continue living independently. I feel like this is a job which challenges me mentally and emotionally but it still allows me to read and write as well which has been really important to me. It was a long road to find employment that felt meaningful and allowed me to pursue my interests but it was well worth while. A major component of getting to this point was working hard in therapy every week and improving my mental and emotional health.
This post is republished on Medium.