Mental Illness at Work: How Support Makes a Difference

May 21, 2012 Randye Kaye


Employer of the Year! There is no plaque, no luncheon, just my undying gratitude for not letting my son's diagnosis of schizophrenia get in the way of keeping him on as a valued employee.

For that, Ben's employer - and any employer with the foresight to see and treat mental illness the same way you'd look at any other illness - gets my personal award for "Employer of the Year."

Thank you.

Employees with Mental Illness Have Their Ups and Downs

One year ago, after six weeks of success at his first job in eight years, Ben's case management agency decided he was now "too functional" to remain in his group home. so he was moved up- way up, too quickly. And they sent him there by elevator, so he had no idea of how long the journey was, nor with any sense of the floors he'd skipped.

Within one month, Ben's new "independent apartment" that was supposed to represent his accomplishments and capabilities became a prison of isolation and confusion. Ben, without the transitional services that might have guided him on his path to renewed responsibility, became isolated, lost - and, eventually, psychotic.

After missing a couple of doses of his schizophrenia medications (oops! they said), Ben eventually holed up in that apartment for days, claiming he had lost his keys and was afraid to leave in case he couldn't let himself back in. Caseworkers said they weren't "allowed" to invade his privacy and go into his apartment without permission. Ben wouldn't answer the door when family tried to visit.

Ben had showed up at work for a week, but began acting lost and dazed - then called in sick for the second week. Yes - even when off his meds and confused, Ben had still managed to get up early each day to call his workplace and let them know he was "sick."

Sick. Indeed. Finally we were able to get the police to knock on the door - and Ben let them in. By that point, he was brought straight to the Emergency Room and admitted - his first relapse in over five years.

Why? Because there had been no step-down structure to introduce new responsibilities gradually. The new caseworkers assumed all was well - based on one intake meeting where Ben , balanced and in treatment, presented beautifully. Sure, he seemed completely functional. He was - if he had community, structure, purpose, and careful supervision of meds.

In one move, all that was taken from him. The agency even made him move from the group home to the new apartment during finals week at school. Talk about stress. But it saved a dollar or two - and then cost thousands.

I've blogged about this before, so let me just say that we were lucky. After nearly two months in the hospital, Ben finally stabilized again and (whew!) returned to baseline.

How Employers Can Help Employees with Mental Illness

But his employer is one of the main reasons he was able to do so.

Here is what they did that worked. Employers, take note. (Please)

  • When I told them Ben was in the hospital, they did not judge his diagnosis. Eventually, I felt safe enough to share the reason for Ben's long stay but still it made no difference. His manager's reaction to the news that Ben was being hospitalized for a mental illness episode? A new employee t-shirt, handbook, and a stuffed animal to "remind him how much we love him."
  • Their reaction, one week later, when I revisited with an update? A get-well card, signed by every single employee. And this reassurance: "Tell Ben that we love him, he does great work, and his job is waiting for him when he gets out. We'll all cover for him until he gets better."
  • Their words, when he stabilized and was released? "When can he start? What does the Doctor say is best? Two or three days? Afternoon or morning hours? Whatever he needs, we are here for him. We don't want to lose him - he's too valuable!" This not only showed empathy, but it also showed that Ben had value to them as a trained, loyal worker. This was not charity - this was a validation of his worth.

So - once released, Ben went, so happily, back to work. At first they worked his schedule around his outpatient days, then offered him as many hours as he wanted and could handle.

And what was in it for the employer? By understanding Ben's illness rather than judging it, by seeing his strengths and value rather than his "illness", they got back a trained, enthusiastic, creative, loyal, valuable worker. Everybody wins.

Ben is still employed there. And, as you may have guessed, keeping that job for over a year has added so much to his self-esteem that his recovery is in a better place than ever. He is even training new people. And Ben has an answer when people ask him, "So what do you do?"

Not everyone with mental illness has to have a paycheck to be valuable. For years, I was thrilled to just have Ben in our lives - loving his family, doing volunteer work, participating in the smallest of events. Eventually he went back to school to regain some cognitive and social skills, and that helped a lot too. But work, for him, has added so much to his sense of worth - when he was ready.

This, he might have lost., This, he did not - thanks to an employer who saw past his illness to his value - and made a decision to benefit from his strengths, and trust him again.

The path away from judgment begins with education, which leads to understanding. Mental illness does not mean someone is unemployable. See the worth. It's worth it!

APA Reference
Kaye, R. (2012, May 21). Mental Illness at Work: How Support Makes a Difference, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 15 from

Author: Randye Kaye

August, 31 2012 at 5:24 pm

I wish there were more resources on how to advocate for yourself within your place of work. I would prefer more open communication with my employer but they don't seem to open those doors very easily in re: to mental health.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Randye Kaye
September, 1 2012 at 4:56 am

Hi Allison - let me recommend 2 excellent resources: one is a book called Defying Mental Illness, an excellent resource . There is a whole section on employment.
Also , Healthy Place has lots of terrific articles and blog posts - you can search on "employment" for some ideas - here is a great one:…
yes, I agree - this is not easy. My son was lucky with this employer - and they were lucky to keep him too!
Thanks for writing, and I hope this helps

Melissa Hensley
June, 20 2012 at 12:07 pm

This posting has some great suggestions on how employers can be helpful. Last fall, when I had a difficult relapse of bipolar illness, my employers were a bit confused and afraid, but fortunately the Human Resources dept. really advocated for me. Now I've been back at work for three months, and things are going great!

Randye Kaye
May, 23 2012 at 5:47 am

thanks, Barb! all you say has so many rings of truth...and hopefully by sharing the stories of success we can help eliminate the holes in the training of those in the "system" who, I believe, really do want to help but aren't sure how.
thanks so much for writing!

AllUCanBe (Barb)
May, 23 2012 at 3:59 am

Hi Randye,
I am appalled that Ben's case management agency would do what they did. How on earth do those who are supposedly trained in the mental health care profession make these kinds of decisions without any clue as to the outcome and to not know that by removing all support and follow up that Ben, and probably anyone else with illness, would relapse. It seems as though they were completely oblivious as to what his schizophrenia entailed. The fact they yanked all support, refused to enter his apartment citing "privacy" issues, made him move during finals tells me they have no clue what they're doing.
When trained professionals don't know what they're doing, have no system in place for graduated care, seemed to have gone out of their way to push every trigger they possibly could - it is a crime and the patient gets to pay the price for their ineptness.
Ben's employer and his co-workers sound like amazing good people. If only more would open their eyes and see mental illness as any other illness, this would be such an amazing world. It was so heartfelt what they did and so compassionate, caring and supportive. Glad to hear Ben is doing so well, loves his job and they love him. He must be very proud of himself and his self esteem must have received such a boost coming back to that supportive and caring environment.
I believe we're all worth it if people will just take the time to actually get to know a person, put their judgments aside and get informed.
Great article!
Barb Hildebrand

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