Schizophrenia and Employment — Is it Possible?

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“Schizophrenics like to work. And fall in love too.”

So begins an article by Robert David Jaffe, author, journalist, and graduate of Yale College. In “Work and Love: A Psychotic’s Recipe for Recovery,”1 printed in the Huffington Post, Jaffe describes his journey after a diagnosis of schizophrenia over 15 years ago. He debunks the beliefs of critics about the supposed moral, spiritual, and physical laziness of sufferers and emphasizes the healing benefits of relationship and work.

After working for eight years at the L.A. Weekly he wrote the article “Shedding the Stigma of the ‘Psycho’ Straitjacket”2 in 2005, revealing his struggle for the first time to his journalistic coworkers. He refers to the newspaper as “an organization that gave me a safe home and allowed me to flourish.” His boss, whom he described as compassionate and empathetic, welcomed him back to work after a psychotic episode.

Obstacles to Consider

Not all sufferers are so fortunate. According to Maria Hengeveld, a sociologist at Columbia University, of the 2 million Americans diagnosed with schizophrenia approximately 70 percent want to work. “Currently around 85 percent are unemployed,” writes Hengeveld in The Atlantic.3

A main reason for difficulty in finding a job match, she said, is that symptoms of the illness vary so much with each person. While one worker might have trouble with disorganized thinking, another might have to work through delusions. (As one sufferer stated, it takes quite a bit of energy to do that. Adequate rest is vital.) A second issue is stigma, even amongst medical professionals who do not believe it is possible for someone with symptoms to hold a job. Third, earning too much money can affect health benefits.

Hengeveld describes the experience of Moe Armstrong, a war veteran diagnosed with schizophrenia. He had a master’s degree in human resources but needed special work considerations after his diagnosis. Though full time work helps him maintain equilibrium, he also needs an employer who can be flexible with his hours. “Routine and work has saved me,” he said, “but it took me decades to find out what I need.”3 He also discovered his earnings threatened his VA benefits and he had to pay back $10,000 in order to maintain medical coverage.

Jaffe agrees with Hengeveld. He says people living with a psychotic disorder find it very difficult to work in some professions due to stress levels. He “learned the hard way” about his limitations, and yet, “It may surprise many to know that I and others with a psychotic illness can handle some stressors better than most people who do not have a diagnosis.” Jaffe said he does his best “to avoid stressors in and out of the workplace.” Finding the balance is difficult but possible with compassion and assistance from others.

Obstacles Managed

More than a few individuals have found their balance. The Stability Network, founded in 2013 by Katherine Switz, is a group of working professionals who live with serious mental health issues, including schizophrenia and major depression. They are advocates willing to “share how they thrive despite their sometimes debilitating afflictions.”4 Members of the organization work for major corporations such as GE and Google, global nonprofits (including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), think tanks, presidential teams and campaigns, hospitals, and universities.

The skilled employees and leaders know what they need to manage symptoms and often use a variety of techniques to avoid triggers, including medication, exercise, behavioral or cognitive therapy, strict sleep regimens, spiritual direction, and maintenance of relationships with family and friends. Supportive relationships are vital.

They, like Jaffe, have serious limitations to manage. Yet, like Jaffe who said, “I probably have gifts that others lack,” they have valuable skills to offer businesses and the community. Switz’s former boss said, “she was valuable enough that making accommodations for her was worth it.” The employer of another Stability Network member saw the self-awareness needed to manage symptoms of bipolar disorder as a job asset. The employee, who is a director of philanthropy at the University of Washington, is “better able to understand others,” said an associate vice president at the school.

“It is a mark of our strength, not weakness,” says Jaffe, “that those of us who have a psychotic disorder contribute to society in the unique ways we do.”

References:

1   “Work and Love: A Psychotic’s Recipe for Recovery,” by Robert David Jaffee, Huffington Post, July 29, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-david-jaffee/work-and-love-a-psychotic_b_7897950.html

2  “Shedding the Stigma of the ‘Psycho’ Straitjacket,” by Robert David Jaffee, L.A. Times, April 10, 2005. http://articles.latimes.com/2005/apr/10/opinion/op-mental10

3 “Job Hunting with Schizophrenia,” by Maria Hengeveld, The Atlantic, July 28, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/07/job-hunting-with-schizophrenia/395936/

4 “Advocates Speak on Mental Illness,” by Melinda Buck, The Wall Street Journal, August 4, 2015.