Complaining about work is a popular pastime. It can be a way of bonding with others who also have impossible bosses, annoying coworkers, or miserable working conditions. But few of us would want to be unfairly barred from all that work can offer. The benefits of a job go beyond economic support. In the best cases, jobs can provide structure, social ties and social support, welcome challenges, and maybe even a sense of self and a meaningful life.
If you have a mental illness, though, you may find it particularly difficult to land a job, even if you want to work and you are qualified for the jobs that interest you. According to Bandy X. Lee, an assistant clinical professor at the Yale School of Medicine, unemployment rates among the mentally ill are three to four times as high as those without such illnesses. Among the biggest barriers to employment, Professor Lee maintains, are other people’s misconceptions about mental illness.
Here are some of the truths she has documented, to counteract the myths.
The job skills of people with mental illnesses can be adequate or even superior, and people without mental illnesses sometimes lack the mental capacity to do certain jobs.
Mental illnesses do not undermine all skills and can even enhance some capacities. As Professor Lee points out, “Abraham Lincoln’s severe depression is said to have made him more compassionate, while Theodore Roosevelt’s hypomanic moods made him an exuberant and influential personality.”
We all have different profiles of skills. Research shows that, with appropriate supports, people with mental illnesses can succeed in the workplace. At the same time, being free of mental illness is no guarantee of having what it takes to do well at work.
People with mental illnesses are not more violent. Instead, they are more often victims of violence.
A popular myth about people with mental illnesses is that they are dangerous. That myth is often trotted out after instances of gun violence. Professor Lee found at least six instances in which President Trump claimed that a mass shooting was not an issue of guns but of mental health.
By now, there have been large scale studies comparing rates of violence among the mentally ill to rates among the general population. There are no differences, Lee notes. But there is one other difference in violence that is real: “People with mental illness are actually more often victims of violent crimes than perpetrators.”
Mental illnesses are medical conditions, just as physical illnesses are. They are not moral failings.
If you have a physical illness, you will often get sympathy and compassion and offers of help. It’s different if you have a mental illness. Sometimes people will blame you for it, because they think it is a moral failing on your part. (It isn’t.) Or they think that you just need to “snap out of it,” as if a mental illness could be banished just like that. In fact, mental illnesses, like physical ones, can be diagnosed and treated.
Professor Lee believes that “the more we know, the more we understand that mental disorders…are serious, debilitating and deadly medical conditions like any other.” She reminds us that even some serious physical illnesses, such as cancer, were once shrouded in shame.
When I was growing up, the people around me would never say the word cancer. They would either avoid it entirely, or occasionally just refer to it as “C.” With research, education, and advocacy, our understanding of cancer, and willingness to talk about it improved greatly. Now it is commonplace for people to have coworkers who have, or who once had cancer – or to fit that description themselves. It probably always was, only now we are more open about it. The same can happen for mental illnesses.
Into the Future
The inaccurate and unfair perceptions of people with mental illnesses is no small thing. About one in five adults has a mental illness, Professor Lee points out. Around the world, depression is the foremost cause of disability. When myths and misunderstandings stand in the way of people with mental illnesses who want to work and are capable of working, it is not just those people who suffer needlessly. Everyone else loses out, too, on their talents and contributions and humanity.