ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Why Many Mental Illnesses are Disabling

Jack Bragen
Friday February 03, 2017 - 08:24:00 AM

Human beings in most places of our planet seem to judge people by their position in life. In the U.S., and probably in most countries, that translates to a person’s success level at a career. Many persons with mental illness are deprived of having a good career--and this is a hindrance to self-value as well as to being valued by others.  

Yet, not all people with a mental illness diagnosis are disabled. I've had the honor of participating in a group intended for "bipolar" people, and many in the group were professionally employed and didn't have a problem with work. Most were closeted concerning their diagnoses. When I describe in the following paragraphs how many people with mental illness are disabled, it does not apply to all mentally ill people.  

I wasn't officially disabled until I was in my mid-twenties, at which time my illness was becoming more disabling, and it was no longer practicable to support myself with a job. In my early twenties, I was able to earn money at television repair, building maintenance, and delivery driving, not in that order. Later, I worked part time. Also, I was self-employed at various times, offering in-home video repair, and, briefly, outcall computer assistance. The self-employment never really took off, and I attribute this to the fact that I was becoming increasingly disabled at the age at which I aspired to be successfully self-employed.  

Hypothetically at least, a number of people suffering from mental illness could do every bit as well as a non-afflicted person in many work situations. There is nothing intrinsic in mental illness that makes people unable to do a task.  

However, I can describe how my psychotic disorder has, in the past, hampered my numerous work attempts, and how today it has left me unemployable except at freelance writing or, hypothetically, at some other independent work that I could do from home.  

Before I go into that I'd like to mention how my mental illness and resultant psychiatric treatment over the years has changed my life path, has prevented me from getting a formal education, has ruined my work history, and has left me emotionally and physically burnt out. The above are significant factors in my lack of employability, as it exists today.  

I am also unemployable at present because, should a prospective employer run a computer check on me, something all of them will do, it will come up that I am mentally ill, and I will not be hired.  

When I was in my twenties, the condition affected me in numerous ways which I didn't recognize. In retrospect, I am aware of many of the problems I had in my twenties and thirties, but that doesn't do me much good at present. Now, I have other problems, such as the cumulative effects of being on heavy dosages of antipsychotic medication for more than thirty years. 

Having paranoid schizophrenia affects the ability to connect with one's fellow human being. In my twenties, I was unaware of how this had a lot of impact on my work attempts. I was unaware that a job isn't just doing a task--a worker needs to "fit in" in the social environment at their job.  

Paranoid and delusional symptoms can also hinder focusing on work, as can depression. Often, antipsychotic medication provides relief from psychosis, but in the process of this, depression often is introduced, because of the widespread effects of medication on the brain.  

It can be harder for someone with mental illness to show up for work--they may have highly exaggerated apprehension. It can be harder to remain on a worksite, because overall symptoms in combination with what is expected can seem to make a work situation unbearable.  

A large component of paranoia is actually fearfulness. A work situation may seem frightening.  

If someone with schizophrenia is to approach work, they may need to recognize and deal with their symptoms while at the same time accomplishing the work tasks and somehow dealing with the social environment.  

Schizophrenia can hinder basic clarity. If you don’t have clarity, then how are you supposed to think clearly about the tasks at hand and about the other responsibilities of the job? 

When in my twenties, it would have been useful for me to understand how my illness was interfering with work attempts. Instead, those in my support system often were judgmental and didn’t understand why I kept quitting jobs. So instead of practical help, I was getting the message that I was a failure. This only served to make me even more discouraged about accomplishing anything in life.  

Psychiatric medications can hinder work, even though they are necessary for most mentally ill people, and even though they open the door to functioning in reality. These medications limit a person's energy level--they provide a hindrance physically and in terms of accomplishing many tasks that most people would take for granted. Since antipsychotic medications lower serotonin and dopamine, this causes interference in the ability to do a task. Sometimes we can compensate with more effort, but not always.  

A psychiatrist examining me for Social Security benefits said to me, "If you are on medication you are disabled."  

I believe that when someone with a mental illness knows exactly what they are up against in their effort to succeed at something, her or his chances of succeeding will be much better. But for that to happen, basic clarity must first be found.  

However, people overvalue jobs, money and so-called "success." It is very doable to live a valid existence without regular employment, without wads of money, and without an important seeming position in life. There are many things to live for, and working at a regular job doesn't have to be one of them for all people.