Finding Work When You Are Mentally Ill

For most people, finding an enjoyable, well-paid job is difficult. And as technology advances it is becoming even harder. Indeed, almost every newspaper seems to include a warning about AI and robots taking away our jobs. For those crippled with mental illness, however, the search is often a nightmare.

Mental Illness

Some forms of mental illness, like schizophrenia or manic depression, are so severe that the individual cannot work. In most developed societies, such people are treated by psychiatrists and provided for by the state. Others, however, who live with chronic, low-level depression and anxiety, often struggle to survive. They fall between two extremes: not so ill that they require intervention but not so strong that they can work anywhere. Worse still, many feel ashamed of their problem and keep it to themselves, getting through each working day on a mixture of drugs and raw courage.

Thankfully, many forms of mental illness ease with time. This is true of personality disorders, and also of anxiety disorders like social phobia or OCD. Some then reach their 30s feeling like they’ve emerged from a 20-year storm. That does not mean the problems disappear, by the way, merely that the symptoms tend to ease. Others grow used to them, or, thanks to therapy and practise, simply learn to cope.

Another common problem is that people become trapped in a job they loathe. Mental illness, it is often said, is a prison. Those who experience it feel trapped by their own mind and nervous system. Unfortunately, that then leaves them frightened and restricted. People are often bewildered by those who stick out abusive marriages, for example, or settle for someone boring and unpleasant. In fact, they may simply be afraid to leave. Their anxiety, OCD or depression makes it hard for them to cope on their own. It also makes new relationships tough. Often, they’d rather stick out a miserable relationship than face the ordeal of building a new one.

The same is true of work. People with mental illness endure a horrible job for years, never applying for promotion, never earning a decent income, and never moving on to something better. For them it is a case of “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”

Telling Your Employer

Should you tell a potential employer about the problems you’ve been having, or should you make an excuse? After all, mental illness is a very personal matter. Some become quite militant and assert that such problems are nobody’s business but their own. Others are happy to explain their problems but worry that their employer will not understand, or will hold it against them. Many feel embarrassed. If your new workplace is small, the person interviewing you may also tell your future colleagues.

In general it is best to be honest. But don’t apologize. If you mumble, avoid eye contact and confess it like a shameful secret, do not be surprised when the response is negative. Instead, explain your problems calmly and honestly. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone has mental health issues, just as everyone has physical health issues. Even the strongest and most confident person has the odd bout of shyness, insomnia or even depression. You may be surprised by the response. No doubt some employers will be crass and insensitive, others will even be put off. But you may find that the person interviewing you has had such problems herself, or knows someone who has.

Should you be put under pressure, suggest ways in which your mental illness has had a positive impact. This may surprise them. Struggling with mental illness is hard, and those who survive need to be determined and adaptable – qualities that serve you well in the workplace.

In any case, lies tend to be found out. You may, for example, be chatting to colleagues and let slip that you are on tranquilizers, or that you were diagnosed with bipolar depression. When such things are revealed, people feel they can no longer trust you. If you have lied about this, what else have you lied about? And what will you lie about in the future? In some jobs you are duty bound to be honest. This is especially true of work that involves contact with children or vulnerable adults. And it is also true of high-pressure jobs, like the armed forces or emergency services.

Finally, it is worth adding that some countries legislate against discrimination. In the UK, for example, the 2010 Equality Act obliges employers to help those with disabilities. If you feel you are being discriminated against, there may be action you can take, so bear this in mind. And research your rights before you apply.


If you have been out of work for a considerable time, or are trapped in a job and afraid to leave, begin by taking a calm look at the options. Essentially these can be broken down into voluntary work, part-time work, full-time work or self-employment. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

Mental illness comes and goes, and some find themselves out of work for several years. When they recover, they must then explain what they’ve been doing. Gaps in one’s employment record are a major headache for the mentally ill; voluntary work is a possible solution. At least this proves you are willing to try. The obvious downside is the loss of income, though many receive expenses. However, it will help you build confidence. Some move from post to post, each time feeling less intimidated and more assertive. And volunteering allows you to try out different roles. Also, volunteering can sometimes turn into paid work, especially if you do it well.

Part-time work, though it pays, rarely pays as well as full-time employment. If you have children, this can be tough. A major upside is that it gives you more free time and more energy to explore various treatments. Like volunteering, it can also be a gateway. Your manager may be so impressed that he offers you something permanent.

The major upside to full-time work is of course the money. It can also do wonders for your self-esteem. People unable to work due to mental illness often feel outcast. They see other people going to work, or look at pictures of old friends on Facebook, and feel left behind. Being in full-time employment makes people feel engaged once more. The downside is the lack of time. But there is also the problem of stress. Most people find work stressful. For those with a chronic mental health problem, however, stress can trigger another bout of illness. It may also put pressure on your relationship and affect your relationship with your children.

Earning Money in the Digital Age

The phrase “mental illness” covers a huge variety of conditions. In general, however, people usually mean some kind of anxiety or mood disorder. Social anxiety, for example, is very common and often makes work hard to find. General anxiety, OCD and depression are other common disorders. Often, these sorts of problems are made much worse by having to work for someone. Others find an office environment unbearable, mainly because they have no choice about who they work with. For someone with social anxiety or low level depression, rude or obnoxious colleagues can make life unbearable. Indeed, that is true for people who suffer no mental health problems at all.

Thankfully, the digital revolution has created all sorts of new opportunities. In particular, it has made it easier to work for yourself. Those who do so often find their confidence and assertiveness improves. For example, if someone with social anxiety were to work in McDonalds they’d probably find the noise and pressure unbearable. And yet that same person may find that selling burgers on the side of a motorway does not produce the same fear. Why not? After all, the work is same: each involves selling burgers to the general public. When the individual sets up his stall on the motorway, he is in control. He is not dependent on other people, and he can choose who he interacts with.

Working from home is another option. Many argue that being isolated will only deepen depression and make social anxiety worse. But it could also be argued that working from home leaves people with more energy for socializing. Those who do not experience OCD, depression or social anxiety fail to understand how exhausting these conditions can be.

Thanks to the Internet, many businesses no longer require the rental or purchase of property. Today, there is a business idea to almost everything. For example, there is a huge demand for high quality, handmade goods. If you have some kind of craft skill, maybe you could set up an online shop and see how it goes. Some people literally run an international business from their basement.

Private tutoring may also be worth considering. If you have a good degree in a core subject (especially Math or English), try advertising one-to-one tuition. You will probably need some kind of insurance, and you will certainly need clearance to work with young people, but it may be a good option if you cannot face working in a large group yet fear being isolated at home.

If you do not want to run your own business, but you cannot face the stress of an office, try working from home. This is becoming increasingly common as it saves employers from having to rent office space. Indeed, so common has it become that the “digital nomad” has appeared: an individual who drifts from country to country working on a laptop in local cafes. Often, such people never meet their work colleagues and do not even know what their employer looks like.

If you like the idea of working from home, you could try marketing as well: Email marketing, social marketing, inbound marketing, and so on. Translating and graphic design are other options. Copy-editing and proof reading are also popular home-based careers. You will need to undergo training, however, but you can do such courses from home – just be careful to pick an organisation that offers respected qualifications.

The caring professions are also good options. The mentally-ill tend to be sensitive to those around them, and careers that demand empathy (such as nursing, charity work, caring for the elderly, etc.) generally attract gentle and compassionate people. Competitive sales offices, on the other hand, are the worst kinds of environments for the anxious and depressed.

Finding work when you are fit and healthy is difficult enough; for the mentally ill it is harder still. Unfortunately, the struggle only deepens their depression and intensifies their anxiety. The key, as with so many things in life, is perseverance.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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