Guest Post: Working With a Mental Illness

I was recently lucky to have my Disability Living Allowance claim renewed, but am presently in the position where the Social Security Agency are forcing upon me another claim for Employment and Support Allowance.  This is to my chagrin as they only recently granted me my proper allocation to the ‘Support Group’.  Alas.

Bearing this plus the current winds of change that seem likely to be made to social security laws and eligibility for benefits, I’ve been panicking about what’s going to become of me in the next few years.  Will I be granted the benefits that I need, and to which I am entitled?  Will I be denied them, but manage to survive through sponging off Mum and A?  Will I have to kill myself?  Or, with continued therapy / counselling (from wherever that may be) in conjunction with medication, will I be able to return to work before my benefits are ripped away from me?

I don’t know the answers and only time will tell.  However, I did wonder what others might have to say on the topic of benefits and/or working and mental illness, and asked my Twitter followers if anyone who had views and/or experience in this arena would like to write a guest post for Confessions.

I was delighted when Kevin Friery, @therapeutic1, offered to do the honours on working with a mental health problem.  Here is his very interesting article :)

Introduction

There is a fascinating social survey that for some reason is not widely quoted in the media. Examining and quantifying Psychiatric Morbidity in England, it was published in 2009. Whilst acknowledging that it only looks at England, it still tells an amazing story. Three quick facts: In any week, 16% of the adult population experience common mental disorders, half of whom would benefit from treatment, yet only a third of the treatable group get any help. Four adults in a thousand have a severe mental illness in any one year. Finally – over 30% of male adults (and 16% of women) drink to a hazardous level in any one week. It is a very interesting read and can be downloaded for free here.

My Story

I work for a living.

Perhaps nothing unusual in that, except that if you are one of the adults with Mental Health problems in the UK you are far less likely to be in the same position. Disadvantaged in terms of employment, housing, benefits and opportunity, people with an enduring mental illness can often find themselves severely marginalised. It was partly because of this that I decided with my employer to become involved in support for people at work who have a mental illness. There are a number of organisations trying their hardest to create opportunities for entry to the job market, but what about those who have a job and are keen to thrive in the world of work? What about the people who haven’t told their employer that they have a mental illness, and go to extraordinary lengths to keep that fact secret? These people often have nowhere to turn. This may now get even worse with the scrapping of Pre-Employment questionnaires; scrapped because they could be discriminatory, but they also gave an employee the opportunity to highlight their needs under disability legislation.

Although I am a psychotherapist and counsellor I didn’t want to provide therapy to the people I was going to work with; most people with a severe and enduring mental illness have access to psychiatric treatment and support in some shape or form. What they often don’t have is workplace support. What I set out to do was to identify ways in which we could identify the obstacles to workplace integration and to create systems that could overcome these. I didn’t do it alone – I had the support of a major employer and also of a good team in my own workplace, but for reasons of confidentiality I can’t name them here. We talked to employees who met certain criteria (severe and enduring mental illness diagnosed by a psychiatrist, self-referred and wanting to be part of a programme that would involve sharing information across several parties) and found that almost universally they were highly motivated not only to remain employed but to grow and flourish, to be equals to their peers whilst having their particular needs met. We found that the adjustments needed to improve their situation were very often minor, with little or no cost involved, but made a huge difference. Flexible working hours was a frequent solution, especially for people who found that their medication impacted on their focus at the beginning or end of the day. Some people had specific severe phobias that, once identified to the employer, could be worked around. The introduction of Buddies or Mentors was also something that was often effective. The biggest single issue was, of course, stigma. So often what we found was that people had either been stigmatised by colleagues or conversely had kept quiet for fear of this happening. It was really very little effort to change this.

I’m not trying to self-promote here. What I am trying to say is that people with a severe and enduring mental illness are not aliens – they are not drawn from some other population to which we don’t belong. At work they can be on the shop floor or the boardroom, they can be rough or they can be cultured, they can be friendly or aloof. All of them, though, can and want to be productive valuable employees who contribute to the efficiency of an organisation and in return receive the security that employment brings. It is not rocket science to understand why this is for the good of UK Plc, nor why it is good for the individual. Dame Carol Black highlighted the simple psychological truth – Work is Good For You – in her excellent ‘Working for a Healthier Tomorrow’. All we have to do now is help employers understand that it is good for them too.

Kevin

Here’s my self-promotion bit – you can find my Fear of Therapy cartoon blog at http://therapophobia.wordpress.com

I should add a couple of points: although I’ve been out of work for two years, I do agree that working can be very good for people with mental health problems.  Of course that doesn’t always mean that people who are still unstable or uncertain as to whether the worst of their symptoms can be adequately managed for the foreseeable future should attempt to make a return to work – it’s imperative for both the person in question and their employer that the person is ready to move back into the workplace.  If you’re not at work at the minute but are thinking of returning to or looking for a job, please discuss the matter with your GP, therapist or psychiatrist.

I think it’s brilliant that Kevin has made such efforts to support those with mental health problems in his organisation, and hope that perhaps someone will read this (or otherwise learn of his work) and be inspired to discuss it at their workplace too.

Also, the Therapophobia blog has given me a good few laughs over the last few weeks, so get yourself over there if you need a bit of cheering up :)

There hasn’t been much ‘normal service’ on this blog this week, and I still haven’t reported back on my first meeting with Paul which was on Monday.  I’m hoping business as usual will be resumed tomorrow or, at the latest, at the weekend. x