Stigma continues to surround mental illness especially when it comes to getting a job. Australia’s unemployment rate at one of its lowest levels, however many individuals living with a mental illness continue to find it difficult to get a job.

Looking for a job is tough enough at the best of times

Benefits of work stretch far beyond the receipt of a pay packet- a job provides a critical sense of self-worth, self-esteem and social identity. Indeed for those suffering from mental illness employment can be part of the recovery back to good health.

The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment recently delivered their report “Work Wanted” to the Federal Parliament. The resounding message in the report from those with a mental illness is that they want to work but cannot seem to get a break.

Whether it is from employers, colleagues, clinicians, families, members of the wider community or the individual themselves, sufferers of mental illness are often confronted with unfounded assumptions and myths about mental ill health.

While those with a mental illness face a number of barriers to employment, stigma about mental illness continues be a hurdle that can be difficult to surpass. 

There would seem to be a perception by some employers and co-workers in particular that people with mental illness are less predictable, less capable or in some cases even dangerous. For some well-intentioned clinicians and family members stigma might manifest itself instead in the setting of low expectations and the view that work would generate stress and perhaps exacerbate the mental illness.

While organisations such as Beyond Blue have done a great job to reduce the stigma around mental illness, stigma remains- particularly when it comes to employing people with mental ill health and particularly for complex or less common conditions like bipolar disorder and psychosis.

Despite this persistent stigma, there are employers out there who are having positive experiences of employing someone with a mental illness. Yes employers do need to be more flexible, just as an employer needs to be if they are employing a person with a physical disability.

Modifications may need to be made to workplaces such as appropriate rostering or training for co-workers. However evidence suggests that if employers make these modifications the result is similar to where employees with physical disability are accommodated - a productive and capable worker.

People can suffer mental illness at different times in their life. For many it strikes during adolescence, disrupting schooling and other training opportunities. This can be a significant barrier for many in getting employment. It is important that our nation’s educational and training institutions accommodate those with a mental illness so that they can get the skills they need to be employable.

For others, mental illness may strike later in life. Here, individuals may have extensive training and work experience but when they become mentally unwell this may be overlooked because of stigma. Employers should not discount the skills this group of individuals has already acquired- skills which will no doubt help to make them extremely valuable employees.

One in five people will suffer a mental illness at some point in their life time. It is time to begin a national conversation about how best we can ensure that people with mental illness who want to study or work are given a chance to do so.

Ensuring our workplaces and educational institutions are accepting and accommodating, and that support is available will mean that those who want to work can work. Employment is not an outcome of recovery from mental illness but a central part of the recovery process.

The benefits of employing people with mental illness, however, are not just felt by these individuals themselves but also by the employers who give them a chance and by the nation as a whole as a result of increased productivity.

Comments on this post close at 8pm AEST

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    • acotrel says:

      07:23am | 04/10/12

      Schizophrenic people who are paranoid can be very dangerous.  However if a person is paranoid, they usually have good reason to be that way.  I suggest there is something really wrong with a workplace culture which prefers the promotion of sociopaths to supervisory level, simply because they can fulfil their own control freak tendencies and give others a hard time.  Many employers seem to believe that is a good thing, but where someone is mentally ill, that situation can lead t o disaster, and it is often the reason for staff becoming mentally ill in the first place, anyway.
      ‘Brodie’s Law is a great step towards stamping out bullying in VIctorian workplaces. - Full credit t o the Victorian government for reacting.  But I suggest reaction is not a preferred answer for managing workplace OHS risks. Employers should be proactive and much less cynical !

    • Al B says:

      07:34am | 04/10/12

      Well there’s one big unfounded myth about ‘mental illness’ ...the very idea of many of these “disorders” to begin with. The idea of categorising people on the basis of grouping symptoms together is very 19th century almost. Richard Bentall a uk psychologist explores this in some of his writings.

      I would suggest we need to treat people as the complex individuals they are and dispense with the very idea of definable disorders to begin with. They often just paper over real deeper issues anyway. The labels can become self fulfilling, while the chemical alterations prescribed can once again just hide the underlying individual issues.

      Folks are not used to hearing this point of view….but it really is quite revolutionary once u start questioning the very idea of categorisation/diagnosis. The labels truly are just archaic constructs.

    • acotrel says:

      08:07am | 04/10/12

      The labels seem miss the idea that schizophrenia and manic depressive illness are the two ends of a spectrum of the same illness, which involves delusion, probably caused mainly by stress and an inability of certain individuals to cope. Conscientious and sensitive people seem to be more at risk.

    • Al B says:

      08:55am | 04/10/12

      Yeah i think the ‘ends of the spectrum’ idea goes to my point. There is so much crossover and misdiagnosis, which really is a warning sign in itself. There is something broken with the whole DSM based mental health industry that has emerged.

      Reading some of Bentall’s book madness explained is eye opening as it delves into the history of not only ‘schizophrenia’ but the idea of diagnostic labels to begin with.

      Sensitive and odd or awkward people are often boxed in by people (external) who have difficulty understanding them. And go through history and the sorts of people being labelled ‘ill’ is very much time specific. It is fascinating to look at the history of the labels themselves and the very idea of the ‘disorder’.

    • Kerryn says:

      07:16am | 04/10/12

      Which is why I only tell people about my mental health issues AFTER I’m in the job and have been working for a while.  Of course, having been part of an industry where everyone knows everyone for a few years, hopefully that won’t be necessary anymore as my good reputation will follow me.

      Sounds horrible, I know, but would you employ someone who admitted to Aspergers and mild Schizophrenia at the interview, no matter how good they were?  Yeah, I didn’t think so.

    • Mik says:

      07:24am | 04/10/12

      There is also a strange belief that somehow mental illness is a choice.Mental illness is a disorder of the brain not a personal choice - just as there isn’t a choice to get cancer or diabetes. Of course there are risks we can take, like taking drugs, smoking, eating too much, that can increase our chances of getting one of the above but it is definitely not our “choice”.
      Anyone who has cared for the mentally ill when they are not well knows there is no “choice” about it, just as when you see the pain of a cancer sufferer. Like a cancer sufferer who is recovered or has the problem under management, there is nothing to hinder working.

    • Mahhrat says:

      08:12am | 04/10/12

      I can see an argument that has nothing to do with the mental capacity of individuals when we’re discussing for-profit organisations - they want the best for the job.

      What gets me in this public service is why we have the same modality.  The APS is the perfect place to support people into work, particularly those with any kind of disability.

    • Bob says:

      08:00am | 04/10/12

      Im a 46 year old male and have suffered severe depression for most of my adult life, I was finally diagnosed and put on high medication a decade ago.

      After eight years of unemployment I found a job a month ago, dealing with customers every day, I love my job, I love the customers.

      My only issues are issues with my illness, I suffer from strong anxiety attacks and even at work I have them but I just dig my fingernails into the counter and act like nothing is wrong, whilst inside I feel like I am being enveloped in darkness and terror. I also have big issues with criticism, it is part of my illness and comes from my past and because of my illness I feel any criticism is an attack on me. I know its a silly way to look but I cant help it because of my illness. So far I have been lucky and my fellow work mates are very nice but my manager is a very abrupt kind of person who never smiles and in my mind I feel that the manager doesnt like me, I then doubt myself, then my depression causes me to crash and my anxiety attacks increase, because of my illness I feel that I must try and avoid this person.

      I cannot mention my illness to my employer because I cannot lose this job, it took me so long to find work I am not going to do anything that risks it.

      I have had Psychiatric care but my psych told me years ago there was nothing more he could do, and I have no other psychs in town that I can go to so I have to fight this myself, along with my medication.

      So when we talk about people with mental illness finding it so hard to get employment, we must also talk about sufferers that do find work and must perform their duties whilst keeping their mental issues in check whilst trying to avoid being sacked, believe me its a battle, a battle that has no end.

    • kitteh says:

      12:33pm | 04/10/12

      Sorry to hear that Bob; hope things get better for you.

      My advice: keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t mention your illness to anyone at work. It will be used against you. I’d like to believe that you could tell your colleagues and they would be understanding and offer support, but this is the real world. There will be at least one who won’t, and will take advantage of your illness to deflect from their own shortcomings. Of course there shouldn’t be a stigma, of course you shouldn’t have to hide, but there it is. It happened to me - and I worked in medicine, where people are very aware of the issue.

      Life as a high-functioning person with a mental illness is very lonely. There are few services and little public support. But if you can manage in spite of your condition and cope at work, it will improve your condition enormously. You feel worthwhile when you have a job and you have the structure and sense of community you need. Besides, there’s a fierce pride in knowing you have so much to overcome and yet you’re doing it without any help. Keep on fighting, it will get better.

    • Al B says:

      08:21am | 04/10/12

      Well the labels are a choice in the sense that they are a more subjective diagnosis. Once u get past the facade of the labels and diagnostic criteria ...well it is nothing like cancer or other medical conditions.

      While the pain is real, the current approach often masks the real issues. It is not as simple as being a “disorder of the brain” ...and it shouldn’t be treated as such. Too often complex issues are medicalised to the detriment of the individual.

    • Al B says:

      08:58am | 04/10/12

      Meant in reply to Mik…hit the wrong reply button smile

    • Mik says:

      09:59am | 04/10/12

      You are correct - complex social issues are involved, just as they are in many diseases eg kidney problems in Aboriginal communities, but as the human body is a complex chemical factory the results manifest in physical ways.
      I also understand where the business owner below is coming from. Guess we, well certainly me, forget too often to “walk in someone else’s shoes”

    • andrew says:

      10:05am | 04/10/12

      @Al B

      “While the pain is real, the current approach often masks the real issues.”

      That depends on the approach.

      I’ve witnessed effective, timely medical response and followup to mental illness that has directly targeted the underlying issues, as well as attending to the day-to-day symptoms.

      Some medical professionals DO understand mental illnesses. I’ve been lucky enough to be around whole chains of such professionals. (And, alas, been around some not-so-useful.)

      As for the comparison to cancer and other objective illnesses, well, the reality is that there’s little distinction for those suffering with severe mental illnesses.  Whether you have cancer, or you want to commit suicide because of mental illness, the prognosis is still an unhappy one.

    • Al B says:

      10:45am | 04/10/12

      Agree andrew, i had a really good counsellor like that…on paper way less ‘qualified’ than an official doctor psychiatrist. Sometimes i think their training background leads them to over medicalise and box people in. Going back to Bentall’s writing, even those considered severely affected by whichever specific symptom….there are always individual ways of approaching a person.

      I just find the comparisons of mental illnesses to other health issues distorts things so that people believe there is such a thing as a neat cure or diagnosis or answer to problems. Having had plenty of suicidal moments as a gay teen i’m well aware of the seriousness of it. I dont mean to sound like i am playing it down at all.

    • seniorcynic says:

      08:28am | 04/10/12

      I guess it all comes down to OH&S as if something detrimental happened then Workcover would come down hard on the employer. Possibly the same applies to older workers.

    • Shep says:

      08:35am | 04/10/12

      Since we’re talking about misconception and strange beliefs, why is it society seems to believe that business is/or should be obliged, especially in this troubling, constrained and often stifling economic climate, to do far more than just survive and prosper, while creating a constuctive, productive and mutually-rewarding workplace. 

      The suggestion that its ok to use other people life’s work as a potential tool to aid in the recovery of someone suffering an illness shows a total disregard for the “wellness” of those who already take all the risks and more and more lately - often fewer of the rewards. 

      Employment, especially in the current high-cost, over-regulated, and uncompetitive environment should be based on competancy, not on religion, gender or any other arbitrary classification, including illness.  If you are competent you should have the job, absolutely.  But if you are not, or if your religion, gender, or any other attribute, including illness, preclude you from being able to perform and complete your tasks competently and consistently, other then occasional illness (of any kind), then business should not have to “re-train other workers” or consistently make consessions. Mental illness, given that it is becoming the norm, according to statistics, should place no more pressure on business than any other illness.

      It really is starting to become just too tough to be in business and especially to be an employer.  The new IR/WHS and Union paradigm in the business world is creating an environment where you must look after your own interests first and foremost, or suffer the consequences.  There is simply no room for kind social policy in business anymore, unless of course the government legislates for that as well.

    • andrew says:

      09:59am | 04/10/12

      Part of the misunderstanding is due to, well, people not understanding the problems.

      Take a Major Depressive Disorder, for example. To many people, Depression is simply “being sad”.  And since everyone is sad at some point in their life, most people think they know what Depression is. 

      But they don’t.

      Major Depression is not being sad. It’s an illness that warps thinking and behaviour, and undermines one’s own ability to combat the underlying problems and symptoms.

      Unfortunately, I don’t think social attitudes to mental attitudes will change.  It’s a bit like other conditions like severe arthritis or tinnitus; unless you have these conditions yourself you don’t really understand them, or appreciate what a profound impact they have on your health, wellbeing and life.

      There is always going to be someone saying “get over it”.  And someone always moaning about the pharmaceutical industry and doctors force-feeding kids drugs.

    • Al B says:

      10:38am | 04/10/12

      @ andrew ....well not wanting to harp on the point…but i myself have plenty of experience with mental health issues ....though i also fall into the camp ‘moaning’ about doctors force feeding kids drugs.

      I think myself medication at a young age…as a gay kid not willing to open up about it…the meds would not have helped and if anything based on later experience with them could have just caused me to live a ‘happy lie’ pretending to be straight or normal.

      As for depression or ‘Major Depressive Disorder’ is not a condition or disease in the same way as something like arthritis. It is an elevated form of sadness. The current approach has taught us it is a chemical imbalance…problem with that is the disorder approach existed first and the industry has attempted to backfill the evidence side.

      And i’ll again add the caveat that i am not attempting to downplay the issues, only to look at them from a different perspective.

    • Employer1 says:

      10:48am | 04/10/12

      I have a particular employee with Schizophrenia who has been borderline on performance for the last twelve months in a frontline role. My commitment has been full support and treating the employee as a whole person but with a disability/illness whether mental or physical. We’re reaching a point in time where performance is an issue. I am not sure if it is partly because of the stigma other employees are projecting. It will be a hard call. I try to treat the employee as I would want to be treated in a similar situation but to what extent do we need to keep accomodating poor performance?

    • Stephen says:

      11:11am | 04/10/12

      Its ironic that our workplaces have become so stressful, toxic, demanding and dysfunctional that they cause and contribute to much of our mental state, yet don’t want to deal with the consequences.

    • Mr.Tiny says:

      12:18pm | 04/10/12

      Private businesses get thrown thousands of dollars and subsidized wages to hire the Not quite right and it just has not worked. So if we can agree welfare is not a long term solution and government cant really tel people who to hire and that most crazy and disabled people lack the resources to employ themselves,The only way to fix the problem is for the government to hire most all of the crazy and disabled.

    • Pull Up Your Socks says:

      12:00pm | 04/10/12

      I am one of those people.
      Mentally you slowly decompose; loosing your dignitary, self-respect and confidence before your very eyes.
      I get so annoyed by these quangos splashing money around advertising their so-called help by exploiting their faux concern of us and their useless dead-end web sites.
      Personally I believe that my family are the ones that could do with help to understand what is going on and be guided in coherently helping, supporting and encouraging.
      These self-promotional bodies are just leaches.

      Al B: Thanks for interesting, valid contribution.

    • Pull Up Your Socks says:

      12:01pm | 04/10/12

      I am one of those people.
      Mentally you slowly decompose; loosing your dignitary, self-respect and confidence before your very eyes.
      I get so annoyed by these quangos splashing money around advertising their so-called help by exploiting their faux concern of us and their useless dead-end web sites.
      Personally I believe that my family are the ones that could do with help to understand what is going on and be guided in coherently helping, supporting and encouraging.
      These self-promotional bodies are just leaches.

      Al B: Thanks for interesting, valid contribution.

    • Tanya says:

      01:08pm | 04/10/12

      I understand these barriers in the context of the difficulties people may experience in relation to acquiring skills or continuing to remain upskilled due to lack of application however I don’t see this as being restricted to people suffering mental illness. Unless a person is being employed through a disability scheme, is there any reason an employer needs to or should know?


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