The most important thing that led to my recovery from serious mental illness was being denied Social Security Disability Income.
I’m grateful we have a social safety net. It’s important to help people pull themselves up, and to provide care for those who cannot support themselves because of serious disability. The net may not be cast broad enough, as too many people who need help are denied services.
However, some sort of meaningful work is crucial to heal, and to regain productivity and independence.
I believe that many, if not most, people with mental illness want to recover and to successfully manage life with illness. They achieve wellness by applying the treatments prescribed for them, and by using whatever adjunct therapies work for them. Still others work just as hard but are tragically treatment resistant and find little solace.
But I was shocked when during my several hospitalizations I encountered other patients in the day room trading tips on how to game the system and continue to receive benefits they didn’t really deserve, because they were able to get out and be productive.
Having worked in Human Resources, I know how some businesses assume that people trying to claim disability benefits for mental illness exaggerate or downright fake it. Actually, most don’t. But all are held back by those who do.
Where does this start? I believe that society’s expectations for people with serious mental illness are so low that many people with illness buy into the idea that they can’t do much to help themselves.
Even professionals in the field advise people with mental illness to take menial, if any, jobs, and to lower their expectations.
When I wrote an article on mental illness and violence, and tried to motivate people with mental illness who manage very well and are successful to come out and stand as examples, several professionals who work in mental health told me that they doubt there are very many people in that category.
So it was refreshing to read an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Elyn R. Saks. She has schizophrenia and, while being advised to take the low road by therapists and doctors, rose to become a law professor and a researcher on how others with schizophrenia succeed while managing their illness. She credits work.
From the Times: “One of the most frequently mentioned techniques that helped our research participants manage their symptoms was work. ‘Work has been an important part of who I am,’ said an educator in our group. ‘When you become useful to an organization and feel respected in that organization, there’s a certain value in belonging there.’ This person works on the weekends too because of ‘the distraction factor.’ In other words, by engaging in work, the crazy stuff often recedes to the sidelines.”
Even Freud stated that: “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”
A few years into a promising business career I was stricken with bipolar mixed-episodes and psychosis. The work I had been doing became impossible to continue.
SSDI wouldn’t support me, so I did what I could and went to work at Starbucks. The pay was poor, but the social aspects of work were strong and the company offered health insurance for working 26 hours per week.
Instead of floundering for years, or maybe even forever, on disability, this became a beginning for me. I was able to re-establish my self-esteem and my work skills and rebuild from there. More demanding and more responsible jobs followed.
No, I have not risen to the ranks I enjoyed before mental illness struck me so hard, but I did learn all over how to take care of myself. I have become productive again, and consider myself very successful.
Yes, I have been blessed with good luck as I have seized opportunities that have become available to me. But work, and hard work, has gotten me where I am today. Work is as important to my recovery and the continued maintenance of my health as any treatment I have ever received.
Too few opportunities exist for all, and too few jobs offer the health insurance needed by those with chronic illness. Unjustly, disability insurance does not offer the chance to try to work and fail, and then regain benefits without a lengthy waiting period. But one has to try.
To be on long-term disability becomes a trap from which it can be hard to escape. Policy must be changed to encourage work and to assist people who seek work.
I believe that those who choose to become self-sufficient can find a way to discover their purpose through meaningful work. Once that way has been found, real healing will begin.