What You Should Know Before You Judge Me for Being Unemployed With a Mental Illness


“What do you do?”

This is one of the first questions you’re asked whenever you meet someone new. For me, it is one of the questions I dread. We seem to be so focused on what job we hold, as if we are defined by it and like it is who we are. People also tend to judge others who aren’t working, as if we are all the same. People who aren’t working are judged as being lazy.

When I say I don’t work anymore, I see the looks of horror and disdain in people’s eyes. I wait for the interrogation that always follows. I think I need to explain myself to anyone who asks. The worst thing about it is I desperately want to be able to work, but you see, I’m can’t. Here’s why:

1. My illness is unpredictable.

Some days, I can function reasonably well. Other days, not so much and some days, not at all.

2. I am unable to maintain stability for long enough to work.

I have rapid-cycling bipolar disorder. I am lucky to get three months stability between episodes.

3. Stress and tiredness make my illness worse.

I might be able to work two or three shifts. However, this would impact my health and I would spend days or even weeks recovering.

4. I am unreliable due to my illness.

I cannot maintain consistency as my moods fluctuate so much.

5. I have anxiety and panic attacks.

Some days, I can’t even leave my house because of this. I’m worse in public, especially if I don’t have someone with me.

6. I often need to be somewhere familiar and with someone I trust.

I need this to manage my anxiety and to help keep myself safe.

7. I have problems eating.

If I’m not at home to eat, I need to be with someone who I trust. Otherwise, I panic and am often unable to eat at all.

8. My medication has bad side effects, including a tremor and extreme tiredness.

I have to sleep a lot more than normal, including during the day to function. My medication and my illness often prevent me from driving too, which is very restrictive.

9. I must keep regular appointments with my mental health professionals.

This helps to help to maintain my mental health and/or to prevent further deterioration if I am unwell. This is vital. A missed appointment can at worst lead to a hospital admission.

Which brings me on to one of the main reasons I can’t hold a job down:

10. I have to sometimes be admitted to hospital and crisis units.

These inpatient admissions have been and are sometimes necessary when I become unwell either with mania, depression or eating issues (whether I like it or not and sometimes whether I cooperate or not.) I have about three admissions a year on average, each lasting anywhere between three days and six weeks.

So despite very much wanting to work, I hope I have been able to explain some of the reasons why I can’t. Oh and before anyone judges me for not trying, can I just mention I have tried being in employment many, many times. I have worked on and off since the age of 16 in various jobs including shop work, bar work, support work, dancing, cashiering, waitressing, modeling, reception work, teaching fitness, assisting teachers, assisting other people with health problems, working as a first responder and administration. You name it, I’ve probably done it.

I also managed to do half of my nursing training before having to drop out due to my illness. I have two degrees, one in psychology and one in social work amongst numerous other qualifications. Clearly, I’m not totally unqualified and obviously, I’m always trying. I do what I can when I can. I’m also a mum, which obviously comes first and foremost. Although, I wish I could work to provide more for my children. But maintaining anything? Or getting an employer to take a chance on me in the first place? That’s pretty tough.

So next time please, don’t be so quick to judge someone who isn’t working. There may be many good reasons. It certainly doesn’t mean they don’t want to.

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