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Reintegration & Recovery - Mental Illness & The Workplace

Mental Illness and the Workplace

Fact: 5 of the 10 leading causes of disability worldwide are mental illnesses.

What effect does this have on the workplace?

What you need to know:

Persistent Mental Illness and the Workplace
Re-employment: The Road Back to Mental Health
The Last Surviving Stigma
It's More than Just the Right Thing: It's the Law
Re-employment and reintegration: A win-win situation

Persistent Mental Illness and the Workplace
Consider these names: Abraham Lincoln... Theodore Roosevelt… Winston Churchill… Alexander Hamilton… Now consider these two questions: (1) What characteristic did these men have in common?, and (2) If offered the opportunity, would you have hired them?

The answer to the second question is probably, "Sure who wouldn't?" And the answer to the first question is - a persistent mental illness. Mental illnesses affect millions of Americans, yet it remain among the most misunderstood of all medical maladies.

Securing and sustaining meaningful employment is obviously beneficial to the individual with persistent mental illness. What may be less obvious is that including these individuals in the workforce can be tremendously beneficial to the companies employing them, as well.

Individuals with persistent mental illnesses are among the most creative and imaginative members of our society. What might the world have been like if leaders such as Lincoln, Churchill, and others had been relegated to the ranks of the unemployed? Many people find it difficult to believe that individuals whose accomplishments were so momentous as to change the very course of history could have suffered from a serious mental illness. But they did-and they are far from alone.

Research demonstrates that far from hindering creativity, the medications now available serve to actually enhance productivity. Harnessing the talent, creativity, and capability of individuals with bipolar disorder holds enormous potential benefits for the enterprises employing these individuals.

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Re-employment: The Road Back to Mental Heath
Experts increasingly acknowledge that work is a key factor in supporting mental wellness and warding off its reverse -- mental illness. Employment provides five factors that promote mental well-being:

  • Time structure
  • Social contact and affiliation
  • Collective effort and purpose
  • Social and personal identity
  • Regular activity

So for those who have suffered from such illnesses, meaningful employment is an essential part of the recovery process. Happily, recent advances in treatment now make it possible for those with persistent mental illness to make a valuable contribution to the workplace.

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The Last Surviving Stigma There is a growing awareness that disability is not so much an impairment of the individual as a product of the environment in which he or she lives. --International Labour Organization

Unfortunately, while the treatment of mental illnesses has advanced, much of society's thinking about psychiatric disabilities has not. Stigmatization has excluded individuals from key spheres of society, including -- and perhaps especially -- the workplace. Many myths about the impact of mental illness endure despite clear facts refuting them. Here are just a few: 

Five Myths About the Mentally Ill

Myth #1: Mental illness is the same as mental retardation.
The Facts: Mental illness and mental retardation are entirely different disorders. Mental retardation is primarily characterized by limitations in intellectual functioning, while intellectual functioning varies among persons with persistent mental illness just as it does across the general population.

Myth #2: Recovery from mental illness is impossible.
The Facts: While these illnesses are persistent, research has shown that with treatment, the majority of people with mental illnesses achieve genuine improvement in their symptoms over time and lead stable, productive lives. As the treatment of mental illness has advanced, the focus of treatment has shifted from simply minimizing symptoms to true recovery-that is, to reintegration into mainstream society, including (and perhaps most importantly) the world of work.

Myth #3: Mentally ill and mentally restored employees (that is, those in whom mental illness is effectively treated) tend to be second-rate workers.
The Facts: Far from being inferior workers, individuals with mental illnesses may in fact be superior in many ways to their co-workers without mental illness. Employers who have hired these individuals report that their attendance and punctuality exceed the norm, and that their motivation, work quality, and job tenure is as good as -- or better than -- that of other employees. Research has shown that there is no difference between the productivity of workers with and without mental illness.

Myth #4: People with psychotic disabilities cannot tolerate stress on the job.
The Facts: The response to job-related stress, and precisely which factors will be perceived as stressful, vary among individuals with psychiatric disabilities just as they do among people without such disabilities. For all workers -- with or without psychiatric disabilities -- productivity is optimized when there is a close match between the employee's needs and his or her working conditions.

Myth #5: Mentally ill and mentally restored individuals are unpredictable, potentially violent, and dangerous.
The Facts: This myth is reinforced by media portrayals of people with mental illnesses as frequently and randomly violent. However, a research literature review conducted at Cornell University found absolutely no evidence to support such portrayals. The fact is that the vast majority of individuals with psychiatric disabilities are neither dangerous nor violent.

It is clearly well past time to break down the barriers blocking people with persistent mental illness from full participation in the workplace.

Where can someone turn for help?
There are many organizations and other information resources that are available to help people with serious mental illness, their families and concerned caregivers. They include both local organizations and national advocacy groups. Many states have created programs specifically to help people reintegrate.

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It's More Than Just the "Right Thing"-It's the Law The workforce incudes many individuals with psychiatric disabilities who face employment discrimination because their disabilities are stigmatized and misunderstood. Congress intended Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act to combat such employment discrimination as well as the myths, fears, and stereotypes upon which it is based.
--U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Ending employment discrimination against people with psychiatric disabilities is clearly the right thing to do. But it's more than that: It's the law of the land. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, including psychiatric disabilities, in employment, state and local government activities, pubic accommodations, public transportation, telecommunications, and public services. Employment is covered under Title I of the Act, which prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities-that is, against individuals with disabilities who otherwise meet the skill, experience, education, and other job-related requirements of a position held or desired and who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of a job.

The ADA and resulting Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance states that workers with psychiatric disabilities must still meet the basic requirements of a job. Private employers with 15 employees or more, state and local governments, employment agencies, labor organizations, and management committees all must comply with Title I of the ADA.

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Re-employment and Reintegration: A Win-Win Situation Once an employer recognizes that mental health problems are probably the single most important factor responsible for the disability of employees, it makes sense to recognize mental health as a legitimate concern of the organization.
--World Health Organization and International Labour Organisation5

Recent studies strongly suggest that programs for re-employing and reintegrating individuals with psychiatric disabilities benefit everyone. For example, in one recent study carried out in Canada (as noted by the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organisation), researchers found that over a 10-year period, 240 persons with serious psychiatric disabilities were able to maintain gainful employment, largely because of a formal work reintegration program. According to conservative estimates, these individuals earned $5 million, paid $1.3 million in income taxes, and saved the government an estimated $700,000 in welfare costs. The net result: A $2 million increase in "collective wealth."

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