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12 Things People Who Don't Work Because of Mental Illness Wish Others Understood

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While many people who live with a mental illness are able to manage their condition while working full-time, like any unpredictable health condition, sometimes you just can’t. And whether you need to go on a short-term work leave or stop working entirely, there’s a lot of shame associated with not working because of a mental illness — as if you’re just making up an excuse or simply don’t want to work.

But it’s not “just an excuse” — it’s a valid reason to need time off and can be a valid reason to qualify for disability benefits. To address some of the misconceptions about people who don’t work or receive disability benefits because of their mental illness, we asked people in our community who are currently unemployed or who have been unemployed in the past what they wish people understood about their experience.

Here’s what they want others to know:

1. “We don’t sit at home abusing the system, collecting money and doing whatever we please. We sit at home with depression that leaves us [in bed], or anxiety so forceful that we can’t take a step out of the house, or in a psychotic episode where we don’t even know our own name. I could go on. Mental illness comes with many symptoms that can stop a person living a ‘normal’ life. Yes, medications and therapy can help these illnesses, but it’s not a cure, and often only some symptoms are relieved while we are left with the rest to battle ourselves. Do not judge what you don’t understand, and do not let those few who abuse the system fool you into thinking everyone is the same. Because we are not.”

2. “People only see me on my good days and probably think I don’t need the disability. What they don’t understand is there are a lot of days I never leave the house because I can’t cope on that particular day.”

3. “I don’t effing want this. I want my career back. If you look at folks on mental health disability and think, ‘Wow, I’d love to have all that time for ____,’ you are ridiculously misinformed on what it’s like to fight it when it reaches this point. If we could even kind of enjoy ‘all that time,’ we’d be back to work. I’d still take my career every time.”

4. “It is absolutely not what we wish was happening. That it is not a vacation. That it is not fun. There are weekly doctor appointments. You wish you could be back at work, back with your friends, back at school functions — back to your life. Every part of you wishes you were not.”

5. “We’re not lazy… we’re trying to survive each day.”

6. “At one point [my mental illness] was so bad, I couldn’t go to work to make a paycheck. Mental illness is not something we chose to have. It’s something we can’t control, and we can’t ‘fix’ ourselves overnight.”

7. “I’m tired of people thinking because I can’t work that I’m not capable of doing anything. I have a lot on my plate, and every part of me wants to work and have a job, but my mental illness makes even my daily tasks seem impossible. I just really want to work and accomplish things.”

8. “[Being on disability] has helped me live more than anything. Not having any money meant I couldn’t really do anything. Now that I’m on benefits, I have the responsibility of paying for things myself, and it helps me to get out of the house.”

9. “We work, but differently. We work at maintaining stability. We work at not breaking down. We work at practicing our coping skills. We work at fighting horrible thoughts. We work.”

10. “We aren’t ‘living it up’ on the taxpayer’s dollar. What little income is received barely affords medicine and food, much less rent. The stigma of being on public assistance amplifies the anxiety and depression. It’s embarrassing to admit it when people ask, ‘What do you do for a living?”’ and having to explain you are on disability and your disability is ‘in your head.’ Nobody want’s to be made to feel like a liability to society.”

11. “Not being able to work because of rapid mood swings and psychosis isn’t making excuses so I don’t have to work.”

12. “I’d like others to understand that not all disabilities are visible. I’d like others to understand that even though I may be receiving a benefit, I continue to advocate on behalf of others with mental health issues, doing what I can with what I have to give, which is my lived-experience. I may well be receiving a benefit, but I’m choosing in return to do unpaid work as an advocate, thereby putting that benefit to what I believe is good use… Having choice of what I wish to put my experience towards helps to keep my symptoms managed, and the benefits I receive help me to be empowered to do that. Lastly, what I’d like others to understand is this: We, persons with disabilities due to mental health issues, are [held back] through stigma in this society still. This makes advocacy that much more important for persons with lived experience to be able to engage. We’re not invited to many tables in which we can influence change. But we do choose to give back.”

Originally published: March 9, 2017
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