Thursday, March 4, 2010

Mental Illness and the Resume Gap

Mental illness is probably one of the challenging diseases to live with. Yes, it is a disease; if you have mental illness, you are sick, no different than being sick because you have leukemia or hepatitis. However, if you had leukemia or hepatitis, people would acknowledge that you were unwell and probably rally around you for support. Unfortunately, society's stigmatization of mental illness results in many mentally ill people being shunned by their closes friends and family.

Mental illness is also very challenging to treat, partially because we do not fully understand the physiology behind the disease and it is difficult to fix something when you do not know how it is broken, but also because mentally ill patients do not often realize that they are sick. Mental illness can distort the way your brain interprets reality; thus, mentally ill patients may hallucinate without realizing that their hallucinations are not real. Many of these patients are unwilling to take anti-psychotic medication because they do not believe that they are sick and they do not want medication to alter their brain chemistry, which they think is healthy/normal.

Patients who have had mental illness in the past can also face many problems once they have recovered from the disease. Recently, a patient made a presentation to our class about her battle with mental illness and mentioned how difficult it was for her to find employment after her illness was finally being adequately treated.

She became mentally ill and refused to take medication for several years because she believed that her hallucinations were based in reality and thought that medication would needlessly cloud her brain. She basically believed that she was healthy and the medication she was being asked to take to treat her mental illness would, in fact, make her mentally ill. During the time she was mentally ill, her hallucinations prevented her from being able to keep a job. After years of being untreated, her husband finally convinced her to take medication. Shortly after that, her hallucinations stopped occurring and she was able to function normally again.

This woman was ready to get her life back and, for her, a major part of getting her life back included returning to the work force. Fortunately, in Canada, we have laws that prevent employers from asking prospective employees if they are mentally ill (actually the law prevents them from asking any health related questions). Unfortunately, there was a huge, unexplained gap of unemployment in this patient's resume which spanned several years. Thus, she would be forced to either lie or tell the interviewer that she was ill for an extended period of time. How many employers are going to hire a person who was chronically ill for several years? Now, if she was completely honest and told them about her mental illness, how many would hire her then?

This resume gap is a huge problem for patients who were once mentally ill and are now healthy and trying to live a normal life. Finding work with an unexplained period of unemployment is incredibly challenging. This results in many of these patients being forced to work in the mental health sector where the stigma around mental health is obviously significantly lower. In larger cities, this may be a reasonable means of reintroducing mentally ill patients into the work force. However, in smaller cities, there may not be a mental health team, or the teams may be very small and not looking for new members. How are mentally ill patients in these cities or towns supposed to return to the work force?

This is a major problem because meaningful employment is an important aspect of many people's lives in terms of determining their self-worth. People who are returning from mental illness often need to feel productive. If they do not, it is incredibly easy for them to slip into depression, for which they already have an increased susceptibility.

Until the stigma around mental illness subsides, this resume gap is a small issue that will be causing huge problems...

2 comments:

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