Employment with a Schizophrenia Diagnosis

by Christina Bruni Patient Expert

Loyal readers of my HealthCentral news articles will remember I quoted this statistic: 96 percent of the individuals that start to collect government disability benefits in the United States remain on them permanently.

The corollary was that one study suggested only 10 to 20 percent of the people diagnosed with schizophrenia work at competitive employment.

I started to receive SSDI benefits that totaled $423/month because I worked part-time at a minimum wage job while I was in college.
This was in 1987.
By August 1990, I had a full-time job and kissed my government benefits goodbye.

I've worked at competitive employment since then non-stop and currently have a professional job.
Actually, I have two jobs and for awhile had a third job on the side.

If you were to ask me I would tell you that the goal is for a young person newly diagnosed with schizophrenia to get into the swing of life as quickly as possible.

My holistic approach to employment is that it's not either you collect a government disability check or you're not employed.

My approach is that you "research yourself" to figure out the kinds of jobs you might like to do and could be good at.
You don't have to settle for working at an inferior job or for collecting SSI or SSDI.
You can indeed work at a job you want to do and love to do.

You deserve to shoot for the stars not to be told by your psychiatrist or other mental health staff in your treatment team that it isn't possible to work.

You get the courage and confidence to work at a job by first doing volunteer work or working at a part-time job.
You can find volunteer work on Idealist or VolunteerMatch geared to what your passion is.

I don't recommend a long-term stay in a traditional day program.
I recommend researching job training options carefully and asking a lot of questions as to whether the type of training will be for an actual job that is available in the marketplace.

The New York State Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) that turned into VESID and then ACCES-VR had a track record of sending people who were hearing impaired or deaf to be trained in a printing program.
In reality the training was obsolete because no jobs existed in that field anymore.

In 1989, OVR sent me to a 6-month clerical program to get trained so I could get my first job as an administrative assistant.
I started the job in August, 1990.
The woman that had interviewed me to become her assistant liked that I had a college degree.

Before that, I spent close to a year in the first day program and close to a year in a second day program that was little more than a babysitting service for people that couldn't function in society.
I likened it to a playpen.

I had to fight with my counselor in the second day program to be taken seriously in my goal of getting a full-time job.
I dressed in rocker chic and she told me no employer would want to hire a person who "dressed very Greenwich Village."

She didn't realize I had the burning ambition to be employed and that I was committed to dressing the part to get ahead.
I was willing to reserve my after-hours garb for Saturdays.

This is the beef I have with the staff I encountered in the mental health system: they could tend to stereotype their clients and view personality traits or simple behaviors as pathologic.

The counselor held it against me that I was quiet and placed me in the lowest level on the lowest rung of the ladder of the types of groups in the day program.
I was literally shell-shocked because I had been shunted into the second day program instead of encouraged to set a goal to find a job and live independently as soon as I possibly could.
I lost my voice.

I don't think you should automatically assume you need to collect SSI if you've never worked before or SSDI if you've paid into the social security system by working at a job.

The better option in my estimation is to work at a part-time job until you get your feet off the ground and can find permanent full-time work with employer health insurance.

The congress people in Washington want to deny Americans healthcare.
I say we should lobby these rich elected officials that have their own Cadillac Plan of health insurance to do the right thing and expand Medicare so that individuals with mental illnesses can work at jobs without risking losing their government health benefits.

If you live at home when you're a young adult you have little or no pressing expenses so can afford to work at a job instead of collecting SSI.
Your parent's health insurance plan or the Affordable Care Act might give you coverage until you're 26 like my health insurance would if I had a kid.

This is a good compromise because if you get diagnosed with schizophrenia when you're in your late teens or early twenties it's not impossible that with evidence-based treatment you'll be able to find competitive employment by the time you're 26.

This is a win-win for everyone.

I'm going to offer a disclaimer: I have to tell you my own mother didn't want me to collect SSI and saw firsthand the dubious benefit of how I was strung along in the second day program.
My Mom was my fiercest ally kicking me in the boot to get a job.

Gone are the days when individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia were relegated to assembling pens in a sheltered workshop even if some of us had college degrees.

Successful employment hinges on obtaining evidence-based treatment to prepare you in your search for a job.
Getting this treatment is entirely possible when you research your options and talk out loud to your treatment team about your goals for finding work.

IToday you can absolutely live life well even though you have schizophrenia.
You can work at a job and you can live independently.

You can live the life of your dreams and don't have to settle for less.

The links below will take you to the HealthCentral news articles I've written about employment for individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia.
I've been writing on the topic of employment here for going on 8 years.

Note: One of the web sites has now changed.
The Job Accommodation Network is at AskJan.

Christina Bruni
Meet Our Writer
Christina Bruni

Christina Bruni wrote about schizophrenia for HealthCentral as a Patient Expert. She is a mental health activist and freelance journalist.