How To Work With A Mental Illness (Without Further Losing Your Mind)
I’ve mastered the fine art of working with a mental illness. You can too.
Like many parents, mine expected that I would grow up, go to college, and find a career. Though they understood my disabilities and mental illness to the best of their ability, they saw potential in me. They knew I was bright and funny and witty.
I graduated college cum laude. Getting to that point felt like a constant uphill battle, but I felt it was like something I needed to do. But unfortunately, that was just the start of my journey.
After graduation, I was thrown in the pits of having a full-time job to sustain myself. Though I received social security payments and my parents would let me stay with them as long as I liked, I didn’t feel this was enough.
I got a full-time job and after about a year, I moved out on my own. Not fully understanding my disability or having a definitive mental health diagnosis, I never foresaw the stress of working full time. It was nothing like school and I wanted off this ride.
But I couldn’t get off if I wanted to. The eternal carousel of being an adult kept spinning, and I had to learn to adjust. Disability in the United States doesn’t allow for much of a life, so working is my only option. But we can save that story for a different time.
I have been a member of the full-time work force for over five years now. I have been at the same workplace for almost three years. Though at times it’s a struggle, I’ve mastered the fine art of working with a mental illness. You can too. Just take this advice into consideration:
- Your work environment is everything.
My first full-time job? I got fired from it. And a major reason was that it was not the right environment for me.
I would do the same thing day-in and day-out. I sat staring at a computer screen and it did not have the mental stimulation I needed. This is not to mention that the managers were completely hands-off and I could not thrive without support.
After this job, I did a year-long stint in AmeriCorps, working in a local nonprofit law firm. I loved the people I worked with and the flexibility of the job. It was like working with a family who supported me and cared for my well-being. I was sad that they couldn’t retain me after my year of service, but I looked for a company with the same values and vibe.
I ended up at a non-profit that hires peers (people with disabilities and mental illnesses). It worked out perfectly for me. I don’t constantly have to be “on.” Though the work environment can be less-than-perfect at times, I genuinely don’t mind going to work most days. I have a supportive team who understands my struggles. What else could I ask for?
2. Choosing something you love (or at least don’t mind) is also important.
For my first job, I applied for a desk job at just about any place that was hiring. This was a mistake.
I landed a job in quality assurance, editing insurance documents. Though I am detail-oriented, I had no interest in the insurance business. This made working at the company a heck of a lot harder.
Helping people and serving them makes suites me better. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. It is also less monotonous and helps me get through the day.
Though it is important for everyone to enjoy their job, it is particularly important for people with mental illnesses to enjoy their job. Our brain chemistry makes it hard to B.S. anything, probably because we are exhausted all the time from our battles.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for support.
The biggest mistake I made in my first job? Not asking for support thanks to some non-sage advice.
I had people tell me not to let my employer know about my mental illness until I started struggling. But that was a mistake.
I tried pulling the disability card after I got fired. It was too little, too late. I still got fired, and I might have not gotten fired if I had proper accommodations put in place.
In the United States, you are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Equal Opportunity laws for your disability. You cannot be discriminated and if you have proof your workplace fired you for your disability, you have recourse.
But the caveat is you have to let your employer know about your disability.
Many states have vocational rehabilitation (VR) programs that help with this part. They can come in and advocate for accommodations for your job.
Having support and formal accommodations makes a world of difference. It makes things a lot less stressful.
4. Sometimes you just have to force yourself.
The cold hard truth about working with mental illness is that sometimes you have to just do it. Sometimes there is no other option so you just suck it up and go into work even on your worst days.
You learn to cope with your symptoms while at work, but even if you can’t, there’s always the bathroom to have a cry on your break.
But always remember, you have survived even the worst of your days. You got this and you are a bad-ass working while you’re fighting your demons.