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Myths and Facts about Mental Illness
Background Information on Mental Illness
MYTH: Mental illness is rare.
FACT: Mental illnesses are more common than cancer, diabetes, or heart disease. In any given year, more than five million Americans experience an acute episode of mental illness. One in every five families is affected in their lifetime by a severe mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and major depression. (Source: NAMI)
MYTH: Someone who is mentally ill is likely to get much worse.
FACT: The course of severe mental illness over an extended period of time is not necessarily just maintenance (staying the same) or regression (getting worse). The treatment success rate for schizophrenia is 60 percent, 65 percent for major depression, and 80 percent for bipolar disorder. Comparatively, the success rate for heart disease ranges from 41 to 52 percent. One half to two thirds of people with schizophrenia achieve considerable improvement or recovery over 20 to 25 years. With time, resources, ongoing intervention, and enough support, an individual can reach significant employment outcomes.
MYTH: If someone looks or acts odd it means that staff need to be concerned about the potential for violence.
FACT: Contrary to media focus, individuals with mental illness are no more prone to violence than the general public, and in fact, are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators. The exception is adding the presence of substance abuse, which increases the likelihood of aggressive behaviors (as it does with the general public).
Who Can Work
MYTH: If someones mental illness is not under control, they are not job ready.
FACT: Individuals with complex needs, including psychiatric disabilities, have often been labeled as not job ready. However, individuals with similar needs can be found working successfully in the community. Waiting for all disability-related issues to be under control may mean that the customer is never judged to be ready. Job readiness really happens when the skills, interests, values and needs of a person [are matched] with the demands of a specific job and the values and needs of a particular employer. (Marrone, Gandolfo, Gold, Hoff, 1998). Job readiness is a dynamic, not a static, concept.
MYTH: The stress of working is likely to cause relapses for someone with severe mental illness.
FACT: Part of the stress response for these individuals is the knowledge that the typical new worker adjustment period might be misread as a recurrence of mental illness symptoms. All people undergo stress in making major life changes, both positive and negative ones. If the changes caused by a new job are planned and have built-in supports, stress can be minimized. Individuals who are taught coping skills to anticipate potential problems are likely to do better at handling stressful situations. Education on self-monitoring can be an important tool for the individual adjusting to a new work environment.
MYTH: A person with mental illness who states he/she is not ready to enter the world of work is obviously not ready.
FACT: Individuals with mental illness may be fearful at the prospect of work due to poor self esteem or inexperience. These individuals need to build confidence through career exploration activities, such as those listed elsewhere in this section. One-Stops can assist such individuals by gradually introducing them to the world of work, through classes on interview techniques and resume building, informational interviews, job shadowing, tours, and so on. Participating in group activities at a One-Stop Center, especially activities which include individuals without disabilities, can be particularly helpful in building the confidence of people with mental illness.
MYTH: If customers request or need help to get a job, they are not ready to work.
FACT: Asking for help is a sign of health, not weakness. The professional is there not to do it all but to enhance that customers skills, presentation, and self-confidence. Professionals can help by:
- identifying assets
- providing training and support
- gathering information
- presenting options
- counseling on implications
- bringing in other contacts.
MYTH: A person with mental illness always needs specialized disability resources to get a job.
FACT: Specialized resources can help, but basic strategies are always useful. Networking, in particular, is invaluable to all job seekers. People with mental illness may find that connections are helpful in lessening the chance of being automatically rejected due to lack of recent job experience, gaps in work history, previous terminations from jobs, and discriminatory attitudes.
MYTH: If a person with mental illness is really motivated to work he/she should be willing to try out any job.
FACT: Every person has different needs and concerns. Severe mental illnesses often arise in late adolescence or early adulthood. A person with a mental illness therefore, may not have had the opportunity for much vocational exploration and, early on in the personal journey into (or back into) employment, may need to try out different jobs based on preferences as opposed to aptitude, knowledge, or experience.
MYTH: A person with a mental illness should only work at low stress jobs that require no interpersonal contact.
FACT: While mental illness can cause problems in interpersonal relations, each persons strengths and deficits are different, as are each jobs requirements. (For example, the interpersonal skills needed for a desk clerk at a Motel 6 are different than those required for a desk clerk at a five-star hotel.) Rather than broadly generalizing about personal barriers, it is best to help job seekers with mental illness understand their own capabilities and how those capabilities fit into a specific job match.
MYTH: Since it seems impossible to find a job listing that fits a particular customer, it is unlikely he/she will be able to find any appropriate job.
FACT: There are many points of entry into the world of work. Networking and personal relationships are important ways to create jobs that fit. Employers are much more flexible then we often realize. One-Stop staff should work on finding out the needs of employers and proposing to fill them in a way that is a win-win for all involved.
MYTH: Only employers who are Good Samaritans will hire someone with mental illness.
FACT: Employers hire people with mental illness for a number of reasons. The primary reason is the same reason that they hire anyone else - in order to get the services of a good employee. Additionally, employers may hire an individual with a mental illness because they appreciate the consultation and support that an agency offers, and/or because they believe it is the right thing to do. For more information, see the piece Why Employers Hire People with Disabilities elsewhere in this section.
MYTH: Employers need to know that a person has a mental illness
FACT: Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers cannot ask about a persons disability, and people are under no obligation to disclose that they have a disability. It is essential to discuss the issue of disclosure with a customer early in the job hunting process, and to help that person make an informed choice about the best course of action to pursue. See the discussion on disclosure in the piece entitled, Contacting Employers: Disclosure, Interviews, and Accommodations elsewhere in this section.
MYTH: Employment settings are limited in their ability to handle people who are perceived as deviating from the norm.
FACT: Community settings can and do accommodate a range of skills and behaviors, and employers are getting better every day at creating environments which value and support a wide range of personalities. Advocacy and a good person-job match are key to a successful job search.
MYTH: It is very difficult to accommodate a worker with a mental illness.
FACT: By definition, accommodation is specific to an individual and a job. There are many types of possible accommodations, such as flexible work schedules, job creation and job carving, and providing a co-worker mentor. It is important to approach the issue of accommodations with an employer in the spirit of cooperation. Most data show that accommodation costs are minimal (less than $500) in the overwhelming majority of situations. See Section 6, Job Accommodations, for additional information and examples.
MYTH: If person with mental illness gets a job and it does not work out, it means that that person is less likely to succeed in another job.
FACT: Different job situations, even the same job titles with different employers, have both similarities and differences. When a person with a mental illness loses a job, that person should not be precluded from seeking another job right away. The fact that the person was successful in becoming employed should be celebrated. At the same time, help the person understand what went awry and how it can be avoided in the future. The loss of a job can be a learning experience. Focus on what the individual learned about his/her strengths and abilities, and then use this knowledge to find a better job!
Marrone, J., Balzell, A., Gold, M. (1995). Employment Supports for People with Mental Illness. Psychiatric Services 46(7), 707-711.
Marrone, J., Gandolfo, C., Gold, M., Hoff, D. (1998). Just Doing It: Helping People with Mental Illness Get Good Jobs. Journal of Applied Rehabilitation Counseling, 29 (1), 37-48.
Marrone, J., Gold, G. (1994). Supported Employment for People with Mental Illness: Myths & Facts. Journal of Rehabilitation, 60 (4), 38-47.
National Alliance for Mentally Ill (www.nami.org)
Institute for Community Inclusion