Employment with a mental illness

Does mental illness make someone a less competent worker? What’s precipitated this question is a comment I received on my previous post. It read:

“…if I had a family member recieving treatment from an OT, PT, any field, even teacher, and had a choice between someone with a history of mental illness and someone without, I would not hesitate to choose the person without. […] I don’t want the people close to me receiving potentially less the the best. [….] I also think that anyone saying otherwise is not being fully honest with themselves…”

Everyone has different perspectives and it’s fair enough this particular commenter has been honest in sharing her viewpoint. Would I be willing to use the services of a professional who has a mental illness? Given their symptoms did not impact on how they performed the job, then yes I would. I see no reason why a person who has a mental illness can’t do as well as a person without. Especially as mental illness manifests in so many different ways. Whereas in one person it may affect their job to an extent where they cannot work, in another it may make a very insignificant impact on the job that they do. On placement I do everything that the other students do and my mental health issues do not influence the quality of my work. I have friends who are student health practitioners with mental health issues, including nurses, social work, psychology, medicine and I wouldn’t hesitate to use their services.

If someone was quite unwell though and it was impacting their work, that’s a different matter. If a person in the depths of a mental illness could not concentrate enough to provide me treatment, if their self care flew out the window, if their motivation decreased to a point where they weren’t completing their workload or turning up, then no, I wouldn’t use them. And as a health professional, one of the responsibilities that come with it is recognising when an illness, whether it be of a mental or physical nature, puts you and/or your client at risk. 

It comes as a sad reminder though that many people out in the big wide world may not be so understanding. This may include both employers or potential clients. They may say ‘no’ as soon as they hear the term ‘mental illness’. They may sack you after a period of being unwell. Just a couple of weeks ago, my uncle went back to work after one or two months as a patient in a psychiatric ward, only to find out he’s been fired. It’s a real shame that employment, especially as a health professional, is yet another barrier that may be faced by people with mental health issues, because of the prejudices that society hold. 

8 thoughts on “Employment with a mental illness

  1. The job market is terrible and employers have a huge pool of people to chose from for any given position. This is why I will always go by my pen name “Jaen Wirefly.” I post my real picture but I doubt an employer would put the two together. If they did I don’t think they’d want to reveal they were reading a blog about BPD, so either way I’m safe.


  2. As someone who has been told by their employer when they discovered I have mental health issues, “Go home, take some time off and get better. I need someone who is 100% fit working for me”, I can comment here. What my employer didn’t know was that I had been having issues for the entire two and a half I had been working for them and the seventeen years prior. Letting my mental health issues affect my work was the last thing I would let happen. If anything it was my work that was helping me keep going. It was a big psychological setback for me.
    I don’t work in the health professions, but if anything, if I found out that any of the mental health workers had their own issues it would give me some confidence in them that they would know a little more about what it’s like to be the client, on the receiving end of a messed up mental health system.
    I worked freelance in probably one of the most liberal, contempery and accepting of individuality industries there is, the live arts. I think that being the individual I am, mental health issues and all, possibly aided in my work giving me a unique perspective, twist or angle into my work. I received many compliments about my work from valued people, as did my employer. But as soon as they were aware of my mental health issues I wasn’t “goog enough”.

    MDD and SzPD

  3. Agreed on all counts, and I will add this:
    one of the best nurses I’ve met had experienced mental health problem. Same with my awesome former CPN. Same with a lovely tutor I had at uni, a couple of my favourite teachers from school, a handful of my colleagues at my current work, and a friend who’s spent time as a primary school support worker. In some of these cases it made no difference to their current occupation; in some it made a positive difference, as I could see them drawing on their own experiences and understanding to support others.

  4. I was the original commentator but what I meant was not so much quality of work as it was potential for illness. Yes, everyone in the world runs the risk of coming down with a cold, with a broken leg, with cancer – that’s part of life. But, would I chose to – if I had the choice – select someone who already has a strike against them, so to speak, to work with my child/parent/sibling/other knowing that the person does has one more chance of taking time off, needing time off, etc. JUST as I would choose not to select someone with cancer, chronic asthmas, etc etc. Let me also state that I am a person with severe depression, who HAS had to take time off due to that illness, because I knew my limits as a professional in a clinical field, and was unable to work at full capacity, because of a hospitalization. That means that someone else took over and covered for me and my clients had a break in services. How long did it take for them to get used to a new provider, and then how long to get used to me again once I returned? How much did they lose in that time, my severely disabled clients. The literature absoultely supports that. And that’s my point – not that people with mental illness provide are not capable of providing absolutely equivalent – which they are – but that there are disadvantages, which as a person with mental illness, I will be the first to admit.

    And that is why there are so many laws against discrimination – as there should be. But I would still choose to avoid any possible disadvantage for my child/parent/loved one/etc, and that does include people with mental illness.

  5. No, David. I did and do not blame anyone, myself an d perhaps you included, for having a mental illness. I suppose I could have phrased it, “someone with mental health difficulties” as someone more likely to miss work because of a biologically-based impairment then someone without that biological-based impairment.

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