Finding Work with a Mental Illness by Cathy Cassata

By February 13, 2019Blog

A few months ago, my friend Jackie was talking about how much she missed working since being diagnosed with schizophrenia. While for many people working is simply a means to survive and pay the bills, often times, jobs and careers can give us a reason to get up in the morning and can make us feel like we’re a productive member of society.

To some extent, the type of work we do can even define who we are and give us a sense of purpose.

So, when Jackie said she missed working, I believed her and I knew where she was coming from. After graduating from college in 2000, she worked as a financial planner for a few years. But as her schizophrenia began to emerge, she eventually quit that job, and tried out a few other jobs until she decided to leave Chicago and move to California. There, she found temporary work for a short time until she ended up jobless and homeless, and ultimately in the California state penitentiary system.

Now, that Jackie is in a better place, she has begun looking into work possibilities. However, the task is daunting, especially because she fears losing her government benefits, which provide a small but steady income per month and most importantly coverage of her schizophrenia medication, which is essential for her health. Since eligibility for these benefits can be affected by income, Jackie doesn’t want to risk losing those benefits because she knows staying healthy is critical.

For others in a similar situation, the organization Mental Health America (MHA) suggests getting an understanding of Medicaid and Medicare by reading about Social Security Administration (SSA) work incentives and reading the SSA manual called the Red Book.

To talk with someone who can help you hash out how the rules apply to you, contact:

Your local Social Security office

Your local Centers for Independent Living

Another concern Jackie has is how to explain her absence from the workforce for nearly 10 years, 7 of which she was in-between prison and a mental health facility. MHA offers the following advice.

Stress your skills

On your resume, instead of listing your jobs from most recent to oldest, MHA says detail your skills and qualifications first. You might want to include your education here, too.

Don’t lie on your resume

Not telling the truth on your resume or during the hiring process is cause for termination, if you are hired and it’s discovered that you lied. Be honest about your work history, just list your jobs after your skills.

Know what to say

While you don’t have to tell a potential employer about your mental illness, think about how you will explain why you weren’t working for a period of time.

Once you’re ready to job search, check out Ticket to Work, a free program run by the SSA that helps people with disabilities who receive social security benefits find work in their area. In addition to online, you can find out more about the program by calling 1-866-968-7842.

If finding a paid job doesn’t work out for you, volunteering is always a meaningful option. By donating your time to a cause you care about, you can give back to your community and feel good about yourself. You can also gain skills while volunteering and get comfortable working with others.

The website VolunteerMatch can connect you with opportunities in your area or check with your local park district, village hall or churches.

Jackie is still trying to figure out which path to take while keeping her mental health a priority. I admire her determination and hope she finds the perfect fit for her skills and interests.


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