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Overcoming Barriers to Employment When Living With Schizophrenia

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According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), between 70% – 90% of adults living with schizophrenia in the United States are unemployed. As others have pointed out, most people of working age with the condition want to work, so why aren’t they?

The answer is complex. Barriers to employment for individuals living with schizophrenia include rigid work schedules, early start times, a lack of accommodations, and social stigma. In an additional study by NAMI, the greatest effect that schizophrenia has on the economy is lost wages. This points to a lack of social support for people with serious mental illness (SMI).

What prevents people with schizophrenia spectrum illnesses from working? Access to, and by extension, barriers to, treatment are a large indicator. Symptoms of the illness are also an indicator. Individuals living with schizophrenia experience both positive and negative symptoms and may do so even while medicated. The need for treatment such as psychiatrist appointments, therapy appointments, physician appointments, and possible hospitalizations are also indicators. For more background, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has looked at the role of how serious psychiatric disorders play in SSDI claims in the United States.

For those individuals living with schizophrenia who do work, not all are employed full-time. Not all work in an office setting or work traditional hours. Many find nontraditional work, work from home, and part-time schedules to be better suited to their needs. While traditional office work may be suited for some, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Individuals can benefit from job coaches and employment agencies specializing in working with clients with SMI to find the right fit for them.

How can employers help? First and foremost, as NAMI suggests, know that your employee’s skills and talents do not live in the shadows of their illness. There may be times when your employee may need, and seek, extra help. Work through any accommodations process. Ensure that you are taking employee mental health as a valid concern. Treat mental illness as you would any other illness.

As an organization, move to remove stigma. Know anti-discrimination laws and abide by them. Train managers in addressing mental health concerns. Ensure that your company or organization offers insurance coverage for mental health services, an employee assistance program (EAP), and provides adequate accommodations for employees who seek them.

Work can be an important, and positive, part of an individual’s wellness. With an open mind, employers who are willing and able to work with individuals living with schizophrenia can help end the stigma against SMI, while bringing new talent to their team and breaking down employment barriers for a disadvantaged group.

Originally published: April 5, 2023
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