The Working Life: An Introduction

  • In the early 2000s, researchers at the Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation conducted a longitudinal study of peers who had mental illnesses and were employed. 696 individuals who met the study eligibility criteria for presence of both a serious psychiatric condition and sustained employment in the two years prior to enrolling in the study completed Survey I. Ninety-five percent of all participants were taking psychotropic medications at the time of entering the study.

    The findings inspire hope for recovery from SZ. Was it a self-fulfilling prophecy that most of the people who volunteered to take part in the survey were doing well? Regardless, the results offer an interesting snapshot of peers who are working, along with coping techniques we use to combat stress or symptoms experienced while on the job. [I answered the Boston University questionnaires over the course of the three years and received $10 for each survey I completed.]

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    Fifty-three percent of all participants had professional or technical jobs, 24 percent had managerial/administrative jobs, 11 percent had clerical/administrative support jobs, 6 percent had service jobs, 4 percent had jobs in marketing or sales, and 2 percent had jobs in production, construction, transportation or repair. Psychiatric diagnosis was not associated with participants' ability to sustain employment during the two years prior to entering the study.

    Eighty percent of all participants had at least one psychiatric hospitalization in the past. Thirty-one percent were first diagnosed with a serious psychiatric condition before the age of 21, 37 percent between the ages of 20 and 30, and 32 percent after age 30.

    Interestingly, 8 percent of all participants held a job in a mental health self-help or advocacy setting, 23 percent were in a mental health setting, 18 percent were in a health or human services setting [not mental health] and 51 percent were in a non-helping organizational setting.

    As I alluded to last week, up to 75 percent of the people diagnosed with schizophrenia want to obtain work. Now that you know the numbers, I'd like to talk about the strategies Survey I participants used to cope with symptoms at work: sixty-two percent took a break, 54 percent kept quiet or withdrew, 43 percent stretched or exercised, 35 percent talked with a co-worker, 32 percent went to a private space, 32 percent prayed, 32 percent had a snack, 30 percent meditated or relaxed, 30 percent called a friend, 27 percent took medication, 26 percent listened to music, 26 percent called a counselor or sponsor, and 10 percent napped.

    The bottom line is, peers are able to stay employed successfully even though we have psychiatric conditions, and those of us with SZ are indeed able to get and keep jobs. I tell people often that the prime reason I was able to recover from the schizophrenia was that I found the job I love. It boosts my self-esteem, and I get excited waking up in the morning knowing I have somewhere to go where I'm productive and a part of the life around me. Today, with so many drugs, including atypicals, to choose from, it is not only possible to recover from SZ, it is probable that you will.

  • So for all of you who've been newly diagnosed, as well as those of you who have been down this road some time, there is real hope for living life on your own terms. And if you want to obtain work, that's part of the package and I'm going to devote November to a blog series called "The Working Life." It will also look at volunteer work, non-traditional sources of income, and possibly include an "On the Job" feature where I interview someone about the kind of work he does. I'll start on Thursday by giving you my "Top 10 List" of things I've learned in my 19 years of employment.

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    For now, I want to reassure you that if you want to find work, you deserve to try, and if one job doesn't work out, the next one could be better. As I wrote in an early blog entry, it takes "persistence and shoe leather" to find your dream job. And the first job you get, your "starter job," might not be ideal yet could give you the skills to transition into another position that works out in the future.

    Managing the SZ itself is a full-time job, yet taking meds makes it easier to deal with the demands placed on us. Though skeptics quoted in the New York Times about four years ago questioned the need for early intervention with psychotropic medication, and countless victims of psychiatric abuses choose to go without medication, it's rare that someone who truly has schizophrenia can function in the long-term without drugs.

    So before I continue, I want to urge you to stay on your meds. As I introduced in here, 95 percent of those taking part in Survey I were taking medication at the time of entering the study. I don't think it's a coincidence that popping pills enabled them to be employed. Now, not everyone who takes meds will be able to work, yet for those of us who have the desire to obtain work, I want to help you explore this option.

    Stay tuned. Let me know what you think.




Published On: November 04, 2008