When Alice first experienced the symptoms of schizophrenia it was difficult enough to leave the house let alone keep down steady employment. Years later, Alice is self-employed and runs her own business. In this special blog, Alice looks at what more could be done to support people with schizophrenia to find employment that suits them.
My experience from employers when they have discovered that I have schizophrenia has been wide ranging. This has been from the initial humiliation of being marched unceremoniously from the premises by a ridiculous number of panicked little men in ill-fitting suits when I became unwell at what I now like to call the Daily Bugle (name changed for the sake of local newspaper managers) or to the wonderful rare occurrence of the university HR department last month who actually understood the value of employing people from a diverse and wide ranging variety of backgrounds who talked me through my fear of speaking to a lecture hall full of first year students.
I first began my wobbly journey to what is now self-employment just after recovering from my first major psychotic episode at the age of twenty. I had been rocked by paranoia, hallucinations and delusions for well over a year and had moved back to stay with my parents.
However, I was in such a state I could barely leave the house and was waking them several times a night to check that they had not, as my delusions were telling me, been murdered by an intruder as they slept. I was unable to wash, dress myself or read a book and spent my days mostly smoking one cigarette after another and talking back to the persecutory voices that were coming from the radio.
This was the late 90s and before people began to feel confident to be at all open about mental health conditions. Stigma and prejudice were then rife. Since then, with more people speaking out, it has become slightly better but there is still a very long way to go since only around 8% of people who experience schizophrenia are presently employed. I am open about my diagnosis now, since it is a great hope of mine that being candid about the sheer normality of experiencing a mental health condition will help generate a change in the way we regard ourselves as a society. Not just in terms of those who are experiencing mental ill health, but also in the treatment of each and every one of us.
The way in which we can do this is in valuing the qualities that all of us bring to society, not just the few who appear to be high flyers. There is value in all of us, since we are much greater than the sum of our parts.
Shortly after my rejection from the Daily Bugle I worked for a very kindly pub landlord, first as a waitress who kept forgetting the orders, then as a bar person who kept relentlessly pressing the wrong buttons on the till, then on veg prep and, finally washing up.
Bless that man, I’m weeping as I type this to think of his incredible consideration and kindness for refusing to give up on me when I was so unwell. He spoke to me kindly with each demotion saying “I’ve just the thing for you or I think you’ll be good at this”. True enough, the washing up was one of the best jobs I have ever had. I was able to listen to music as I scrubbed pans which also helped drown out the sound of my colleague who tended to talk to herself as much as I did.
That landlord’s kindness taught me more about work than the actual work I did there and it is something that has continued to sustain me. I realize now that he could see my potential. Not as an employee (I was a shit employee at the time, since I had so much medication on board) but he saw my value as a person. He wasn’t lying to me either when he told me that things would improve because, although I was a rubbish kitchen employee, he was teaching me something of what the value of work actually means.
I realize that he was teaching through example, the value of real work is that we are all valued. He valued me because his own work was to improve the human condition. He was employing me because he had the deep and human gift of compassion. That the ways to challenge the forces of entropy that are at work in some areas of society are through the loving work done in our world. The composite of all our efforts can have an effect. Good done anywhere is good done everywhere.
That kind of humanity is passed on to others. What he was losing in terms of revenue from my rubbish veg prep, he was building the future confidence in myself. This is how kindness works.
I think we need to reassess what we value in society. Whether coming out top in something is really as important as being inclusive? Many people fear disabilities, pain or vulnerability and yet we will, without exception, all experience these things in some form at some point.
Unless we are children, who live in the unfiltered present, we often make the mistake of pre-judgement. I’ve had some very amusing questions from people since I began being open about my diagnosis. Apart from one complete plonker of a taxi driver who asked me if I 'get a bit stabby', I generally welcome these questions. Answering them allows me to challenge people’s fear and dissipate judgement. In fact in my experience, it is far better to ask people the questions you have outright rather than assuming things about people. It is better to be curious and ask something than risk being stuck in the restrictive lack of empathy that lies in prejudice.
I promise you that people with a mental health condition can always tell you politely if you’re being a tit. If you ask a stupid question and then you can both have the opportunity to laugh later together. The opposite of prejudice is being open minded and without preconceptions. Don’t look through people, ask them something about themselves, start a conversation, connect.
Some people are bound to ask silly questions but actually, no question is silly. In one of his paradoxes of logic, the philosopher Wittgenstein said, “If people did not do silly things then nothing intelligent would get done.” I think then if the silly questions are asked, we might get to see the intelligent answers and they might change us all for the better.
One of the ways this could be done is by valuing everyone in the work place. It is too easy to say that the mentally ill are of no value to a working environment. This has been said too many times and is one of the ridiculous reasons why our work places continue to fail all of us. A diverse workforce, both physically and mentally, is vital to the future of our businesses, our schools, our universities and our health and wealth as a nation.
Some of us who experience mental ill health have developed great compassion and empathy for others through those experiences. Some of us can perform extraordinary feats of imagination, compose sonnets, fill in paperwork in an office, build shelves or houses, teach children or support each other through difficulty. In fact, many of us classed as mentally ill have a great contribution to make to all of our lives, but are not being allowed to do this because of the fear of employers to give us purposeful meaningful work.
My life has so far been one big overarching attempt to find a work place where I can do what I’m good at. I loved my job washing up as much as now I love the teaching or artwork I do. Nobody wants to be unemployed.
We have a ridiculous benefits system where people are made to feel like shirkers or lazy good-for-nothings if they have to rely on a social security system and yet paradoxically we have widespread reluctance to employ people in a compassionate and responsible manner according to their capabilities.
Instead, too often people are bullied or cajoled into underemployment or ridiculously inappropriate work. One of my friends was so dyspraxix he couldn’t write his own name until he was 16. He could however, work out three figure calculations in his head in an instant. He was kicked off benefits for not being able to read a letter about an appointment with a job centre. I have another friend who can talk about any subject like she has swallowed Wikipedia, but is dispraxic and was asked to get a fork lift truck license in order to do her shelf stacking job at Poundland. Cue cans of tomatoes falling all over the floor and the accompanying P45.
I went through the benefits system whilst I was experiencing my last psychotic episode and had to claim Employment and Support Allowance. It was a truly humiliating experience and also very frightening. I was asked whether I was suicidal. I was examined physically although it was clearly a mental health issue. I couldn’t attend the meeting on my own and was unable to answer some of the questions because I had been bombarded by voices telling me to jump under cars on the way over to the assessment centre. I was then asked by an untrained assessor if I ever felt suicidal even though he had a letter from my GP explaining that I had only recently been well enough to be without a crisis team visiting me twice a day.
When I felt a little better, I started with a company which promised to help me find work. Being a hard worker and determined not to be classed as one of Cameron’s shirkers, I applied enthusiastically to 500 vacancies in 6 months. I had two replies and one interview. Although the advisor at the job centre was nice, I felt bullied and cajoled to such an extent by this organization that was supposed to be helping me, that it began to eat away at what little confidence I had developed. It made it more difficult to find employment in the long run. We were all equally treated there but unfortunately equally treated like second-class citizens.
I now manage employment through freelance work as a photographer, cleaning work, gardening and anything else where I am offered employment. I was scrubbing people’s front door steps with a wire brush last week to get rid of algae and this week I’m cleaning a house. I never turn work down and I am constantly on the look out for the next job so that I can finally gain financial independence. When I am well enough, I work 24 to 30 hours a week alongside struggling with the latter part of a PhD. I still feel that I am also one of the luckiest of people.
Each day I see and speak to other people for whom this ridiculous system has failed even more disastrously. Some are the elderly and homeless freezing to death in the winter. The people with drug or alcohol problems who are there because of their depression, because of broken relationships, abuse they have suffered as children or because they have been in the armed forces and don’t have support to return to civilian life. Some of these people are only barely out of childhood and have already been left to rot.
We can, all of us, do something to address this. It is not outside our capabilities to reserve our judgement of others. We don’t know other people’s stories without asking them. It is not outside our abilities to recognize the diverse talent of others and to stop underestimating them. It is not outside our means and compassion to employ people from a wider range of situations, experiences, talents and environments.
Here are some things that are good about employing people with a mental health condition:
You can pat yourself on the back for your charitable nature. You can make your company look better by employing a wider range of people from the community. Your colleagues and employees will value themselves better if they can see that you are an open employer and that you value everyone. People sometimes have extraordinary untapped skills. You might learn something new. You might even be employing an Einstein, Picasso or John Nash which makes a workplace more interesting. The mentally ill don’t take days off for no reason. You may find the work place is better able to rise to new challenges with the creative or analytical skills of a diverse work force. Your company will look good locally and nationally. But most of all you will find yourself of value not just through your financial successes but also through being a person of value to your community of humans. You may find satisfaction in making a work where all people can find a place. Your workforce will be happier and so will you.
If we can stop underestimating each other or condemning one another for our differences and start being inclusive then, without a doubt, each and every one of us will gain since, everything that divides or isolates us prevents us from reaching our collective human potential.
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Read more about life with schizophrenia.