Being a Professional with Mental Illness:
Misconceptions, Stigma and Facing Prejudice
I have been working since the age of 14 and have done numerous jobs in my 31 years. I started off as a home help care assistant for the elderly in their own homes (even though I was under-age) and continued to work on and off in this position, working my way through training and in various care companies. I have also worked for many years as a waitress, barmaid and as a shop assistant throughout my teens and twenties. I have worked many 12 hour shifts and 7 day weeks I am not shy of hard work to say the least.
However due to my mental illnesses and traumatic adolescence and destructive twenties I have also been fired, made redundant, walked out and been pushed out due to be a whistle blower in a care home as I witnessed elderly abuse and reported it. Most of these jobs were lost or taken from me due to my mental illness. From being fired due to being signed off for mental illness to being targeted with prejudice and hate in the work place by an employer who took my mental health issues and broadcast them to other members of staff and told these members to be careful around me and not to trust me with knives and I was bullied and taunted due to this.
By the time I was 27 I had experienced a re-lapse after coming face to face with my rapist in the city I live in, whilst trying to post a letter which FYI for an agoraphobic such as myself was a massive challenge even though the post box was just outside my front door, this sent me into a spiralling decent and detachment set in, I am still suffering today with my recovery. At this time I was also a full time student at Portsmouth University, but due to this and my ability to go to classes deteriorating I was told by The University of Portsmouth I was to ill to study and had to leave my course, which as you can imagine was an enormous blow.
Now I was so unwell I cold not go outside alone or even at all most days (this is still the case) so what options did I have? I could stay in and waist away my mind due to the fact I had no medical support, financial support or the ability to work. So at first I just stopped, I was defeated and I felt as if I was sinking fast and was scared for my marriage and my life.
The thing is I may have mental illness, certain neurological damage due to trauma, a chemical in-balance and emotion regulation problems but this does not mean I was or am useless. I was just left, with nothing… As a survivor and someone who has been through so much I am very able in many things. The confusion in how “we” the mentally ill can work is a big issue and needs to be addressed under the Equal Opportunities Act and then further for our world to observe “us” as not criminal, incapable, useless, unintelligent, unreliable or some kind of contagious disease ridden liability.
However a NEW way of looking at “work” and “jobs” is needed for all of us to succeeded or provide for our family and sustain our lives. The format of the 9am – 5pm job is not suitable for everyone, nor is the insistence of office work. Already many of us work differing hours over a 24 hour period, with shift work and certain industries needing specific hours outside of the “working day”, as well as more people working from home and starting their own businesses. But are all opportunities equal and do people with disabilities get the same treatment as those without? The answer is simple, NO!
Equality Act 2010
The Equality Act came into force in October 2010, providing a modern, single legal framework with clear, streamlined law to tackle disadvantage and discrimination more effectively.
It is discrimination to treat a disabled person unfavourably because of something connected with their disability. This type of discrimination is unlawful where the employer knows, or could reasonably be expected to know, that the person has a disability.
Definition of a disability
Under the Equality Act 2010, the definition of a disability is a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on someone’s ability to do normal daily activities.
- Substantial is more than minor or trivial. For example, it takes much longer than it usually would to complete a daily task like getting dressed.
- Long-term means 12 months or more. For example, a breathing condition that develops as a result of a lung infection.
Equality law recognises that bringing about equality for disabled people may mean changing the way employment is structured, the removal of physical barriers and/or providing extra support for a disabled worker. This is the duty to make reasonable adjustments.
The aim of the duty is to make sure that, as far as is reasonable, a disabled worker has the same access to everything that is involved in doing and keeping a job as a non-disabled person.
Workplace adjustments can be temporary or made on a permanent basis.
Examples of adjustments to working arrangements include:
- allowing a phased return to work;
- changing individual’s working hours;
- providing help with transport to and from work;
- arranging home working, providing a safe environment can be maintained;
- allowing an employee to be absent from work for rehabilitation treatment.
Examples of adjustments to premises include:
- moving tasks to more accessible areas;
- making alterations to premises.
Examples of adjustments to a job include:
- providing new or modifying existing equipment and tools;
- modifying work furniture;
- providing additional training;
- modifying instructions or reference manuals;
- modifying work patterns and management systems;
- arranging telephone conferences to reduce travel;
- providing a buddy or mentor;
- providing supervision;
- reallocating work within the employee’s team;
- providing alternative work.
( All information taken from the Equality and Human Rights Commission http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/)
So what is really happening with this issue? (I shall share statistics on mental illness as this is the disability I have)
The most recent figures available show that only around 27% of working age adults in England with a mental illness are in employment.
The rate of employment for people with a mental illness is currently used by the government as one way of measuring people’s quality of life.
For those with mental health problems, being employed can be an important step to recovery, improving self-esteem and confidence and reducing psychological distress.
Conversely, unemployment increases the risk of developing mental health problems, and is associated with increased rates of depression and suicide.
The 27% of working age adults in England with a mental illness in employment compares with around 70% of the working age population as a whole being economically active.
We know that people with a mental illness are more likely to become unemployed, and research has suggested that less than 40% of employers would consider employing someone with a mental health problem
( From The Mental Health Foundation – http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/ )
(If you would like to look further at Equality in employment in general, with regards to race, class, disability and gender please follow this link: Equality group inequalities in education, employment and earnings)
So what is it I want to convey to you, you may be asking yourself. My message is this: due to discrimination I have had to fight for rights in employment and education, I have almost completed my honours degree in Psychology and Philosophy at The Open University, who have helped me have the same chances as other students by providing me extra support. I also did not give up, deciding to follow my passions after the defeat I faced. Therefore I became what I always wanted to be, an artist which I have been very successful in since 2010 and my career just keeps getting bigger and better. When I speak of success I do not mean MONEY, I mean that I use my time to create and comment on my world and the world around me through art. With a massive following of over 40,000 people from all over the world, solo and group exhibitions, being a published illustrator, selling art, creating art for charity and campaigns and mentoring fellow artists, this to me is success. But believe me I have so much more to do!
As well as being an artist I am also the managing director of Art Saves Lives International and the co-founder of this amazing non-profit charitable organisation. I am the editor and chief of our on-line art publication ASLI Magazine and I am in charge of marketing, social media and campaigns. I have my own team and volunteers as well as our following of 5,000 supporters from around the world which grows everyday.
This is all done from my home, with my own suitable hours 10am – 6pm then 11pm till 1am with days off or half days off when I need, with none of this set in stone I can also be flexible with hospital appointments, seeing therapists and doing exposure work for my agoraphobia.
Things I can do to make my work environment easier:
- To be e able to have no noise is important as I have
- Being able to exercise whenever I need (for my diabetes, PCOS and arthritis)
- I can eat alone, due to my illness I do not eat in-front of strangers for fear of weakness, judgement and germs
- I get to start my day once my medication has worn off
- I get to relax before work for an hour in my own environment with no pressure, this helps my anxiety as my anxiety is worse in the morning due to night terrors and hormonal issues
- I do not have to deal with anyone I do not wish to which helps me focus on my work with no social anxiety
- I get to take time out if I am having a particularly bad day without the “rules” and “disciplinary” action which I would ensue in most jobs, I always make up my hours and work so this is never a problem.
- I get to structure my organisation with all of this in mind, so that anyone who works for me or ASLI is treated with these same equal rights
The things which make my life harder are made even harder by people who do not understand that I work very hard, non-profit and with my disabilities. I do not require sympathy, special treatment or exceptions, but what I do need is acceptance and for people to question their thoughts on these matters and remember hard work and valuable work do not equate to highly paid jobs or someone’s worth in general. Aligning these ideas with the other is in many ways one of our worst enemies on this planet.
So next time you see my work or me working or someone like myself please remember what you have read here, remember that I am just as valuable, hard-working and equal to you. This is not a hobby, this is my life!
When obstacles are put in your way in life you can sit there and give up and except your own defeat or you can challenge these obstacles and climb them with great force and determination, because YOU MUST REMEMBER THE ONLY WAY TO CHANGE THIS IS TO FIGHT IT! We must not be passive and except what the privileged power keepers of the world “give us”, we must not turn on the less fortunate, asylum seekers, unskilled, young, old or disabled! Instead we must aid each other within our communities to better help one another survive, but better still strive.
Thank you for your time…