Employment and the Mentally Ill
Employment, for most of us, has a practical and symbolic significance. Work is a mechanism used to provide basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing. Work often satisfies intangible needs as well. It offers structure, a way to meet people and an opportunity to contribute to society.
Unfortunately, those labeled mentally ill have in many cases not been able to benefit from employment. Obstacles occur for this group both as individuals and in society. The unemployment rate among persons with severe psychiatric illness is estimated to be 85%. There are employers who have a negative perception of work ability when a person experiences a mental illness. Many people fear or misunderstand symptoms of the illness.
The barriers on an individual level depend on the person’s limitations and the demands of a specific work setting. While it is necessary to take caution with generalizations, certain areas of functional limitations can occur. There may be difficulty with duration of concentration, screening out environmental stimuli, managing time pressures and deadlines, initiating interpersonal contacts, and responding to negative feedback.
Although there are some barriers, many people successfully pursue employment. Some obstacles can be eliminated or reduced with simple workplace accommodations. Minor work modifications in work patterns or interpersonal communication can make a tremendous difference in utilization of job skills.
Often these modifications are very simple and may be free. Included are some examples to illustrate this point. Arranging for work requests to be in writing if verbal instructions are difficult; providing positive feedback along with comments for needed improvements and permitting flexibility in scheduling once or twice a month to permit attendance at doctor’s or therapy appointments are examples of workplace accommodations for persons with a psychiatric diagnosis.
Another service is available through many programs. Following an assessment of a person’s skills and interests, supported employment services provide a job coach. When the person has the skills to work, and an appropriate job is available, the person applies for the position. If hired, the job coach can help with the transition into the workforce.
As the person becomes more comfortable with the job, the job coach reduces involvement. This is still an option that may enhance the opportunity for the employee to sustain successful employment.
Other people will need no special workplace modifications or supported employment. They will perform well with support from family and friends who say job well done.