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. That said, the most important thing that led to my recovery from serious mental illness was being denied Social Security Disability Income.
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 first hospitalization 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 are exaggerating or downright faking it. Actually, most aren’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 them 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 working in mental health told me that they doubt there are very many people in that category.
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.”
In the middle of a promising business career I was stricken with bipolar mixed-episodes and psychosis. The work I had been doing became impossible to continue. But 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 they offered health insurance for working 26 hours per week. Instead of floundering for years, or maybe even forever, on disability, this became a beginning. I was able to re-establish my self-esteem and my work skills and rebuild from there. No, I have not risen to the ranks I enjoyed before mental illness struck 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 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. Being on long-term disability becomes a trap from which it can be hard to escape. Policy must be changed. But I believe that those who choose to become self-sufficient can find a way. And once that way has been found, real healing will begin.