Mental illness currently affects more than 40 million Americans*, and yet many find the topic difficult to discuss. It is an invisible condition that touches one in five people* who are living and working in our communities. Having a purpose, like meaningful employment, can significantly affect how a person with a mental illness manages his or her condition. However, the roller coaster of highs and lows that often come with any long-term illness can bring challenges to those in the workforce. The stigma around mental illness, derived from a lack of education and history of treatment, makes it difficult to talk about, especially in a professional setting.
The Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES) Division of Employment and Rehabilitation Services (DERS) Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program has resources to help individuals living with mental illness thrive in school and the workplace, and live independently. DERS also provides services to individuals dealing with serious mental illness (SMI) who utilize the resources of many behavioral health clinics throughout the state.
DERS VR Transition Specialist, Betty Schoen, not only helps VR clients find employment, but has a mental illness herself. For Schoen, it all began with what she refers to as “emotional breakdowns” which consisted of uncontrollable crying and many “down days.” Schoen sought professional help and was diagnosed with a mood disorder. Through therapy and the right medications, she has identified strategies to help her handle her illness, including knowing her triggers and symptoms.
“It is so crucial to be self-aware,” says Schoen, who has been successfully employed with DES for 31 years.
Schoen says individuals in the workforce who are living with a mental illness need to know their limitations and ask for help if needed. She advises to be on the lookout for symptoms, like fatigue, high absenteeism, decline in physical health, not wanting to come to work and feeling overwhelmed. Schoen actually changed jobs after realizing a former position caused her far too much stress.
“The job was literally killing me,” said Schoen who noticed physical impacts of the stress on her body.
Schoen said she felt lucky to have an understanding boss at the time, but realizes that not all supervisors are like hers. Many workers feel the need to repress emotions and any signs of weakness in order to maintain a professional presence on the job. The pressure and misconceptions associated with a mental illness can make it difficult for an employee to open up to his or her employer. In this case, Schoen recommends workers present their boss with a “stress reducing plan” that outlines changes they would like implemented to help them in their current role.
“You have to be an advocate for yourself,” said Schoen.
If a worker is unable to find relief by talking to his or her immediate supervisor, Schoen recommends going to a higher ranking manager or talking to a human resources representative. If all of these avenues result in a dead end, then it may benefit that individual to find another job where he or she is better supported.
Regardless if a job is particularly stressful or not, there will always be hard days – especially for people with struggle with mental illnesses. Schoen recommends workers dealing with mental illness treat their condition just as they would any other ailment and be aware of their limitations. If the affliction flares up while at work, try taking a break by going on a walk, talking to a friend, or using a mobile mental health app like Wysa or Booster Buddy. Another option is for the worker to tell his or her peers they are involved in a detailed project and need space to focus. If the mental load feels too heavy to function professionally that day, take the day off to heal.
At DES, we challenge you to help us #breakthestigma by talking about mental illness and seeking help if you are struggling. The VR program is free and available to anyone who is living with a mental illness or disability. Please visit our Rehabilitation Services page if you are having a difficult time either finding or retaining employment because of a mental illness or disability.
In Arizona, help for a mental illness can be found by going to the National Alliance on Mental Illness Arizona website or the Mental Health America of Arizona website.
If you are having suicidal thoughts or are in crisis, please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text "Connect" to 741741. If you suspect someone is contemplating suicide, learn about the warning signs.
Find free mental health resources in Arizona here.
*Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
By Jillian Seamans