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A few weeks ago, I called the local food pantry to set up an appointment to receive my pantry bag. The woman working there had to ask me a series of questions, including what my name was, how many people lived in my household, and if I was employed. I answered each question and when it came to answer the question about my employment, I answered “no.” There was silence on the other end of the phone, and I immediately felt the need to explain myself. I explained that I was a single mother and also a full-time college student, and that I am not able to manage both along with a job. The woman from the food pantry responded curtly that she was once a single mother in college, and she held a job and succeeded, so I could too. She then listed a few local businesses who were hiring, suggesting that I apply as soon as possible. What I did not tell her in my explanation is that I am unemployed due to my mental illness. I left this out because of the stigma that surrounds mental illness and the stigma that surrounds the unemployed, and because I was ashamed to fit both kinds of stigma. In reality, I should not have felt the need to explain my unemployment to this woman, but because of the stigma, I felt obligated to.
The issue here is how the woman at the food pantry made me feel; like I had to explain my unemployment, and how I felt ashamed to reveal my mental illness as the reason why I am unemployed. Society has conditioned people like me; people with mental illness who are unemployed, to feel ashamed, when in reality, we have nothing to be ashamed of. Our mental disorders are real, they are valid, and they are life-altering. They prevent us from functioning as regular people do, and that includes working nine to five every day. Unfortunately, mental illness is not seen as real or valid to the majority of society, and mental health is not deemed as important as physical health. People with physical ailments such as an injured back or broken leg are expected not to work, but people with chronic depression or bipolar disorder are expected to work and if they don’t, are stigmatized unfairly.
There is already such a cruel and unfair stigma that surrounds mental illness in general, but the stigma that surrounds being both mentally ill and unemployed is disgusting. Those who choose to stigmatize people like me, people who can’t work due to mental illness, do not realize that it is not a choice. If it were my choice, I wouldn’t have bipolar disorder, and I would work full-time and have a perfect attendance record at my job. But, mental illness is not a choice, and the effects of having a mental illness are not a choice. People with depression do not choose to remain house-bound for days on end. People with generalized anxiety disorder do not choose to feel sick every time they encounter another person. People like me, with bipolar disorder, do not choose to be swallowed up by despair during a depressive episode. We do not choose to have our mental disorders, and we do not choose to be unemployed. It is not fair that we are treated like we choose to be unemployed, it is not fair that we are deemed lazy or unsuccessful. For some of us, remaining unemployed ensures our success – our success in recovery.
For me, being unemployed at this moment in time is part of my mental health recovery. Per my doctor’s orders, I am focusing on myself and my daughter, my self-care, and my coping mechanisms. Adding a full-time job to my life right now could upset my recovery, leaving me overwhelmed and anxious while triggering a depressive episode. I have a recovery plan in place that states that I take baby steps toward becoming employed full-time, the first step of that plan being that I work part-time. I have taken this step and am working four hours each week for a cleaning company. This way, I can focus on my mental health but also change my environment and learn how to cope in that environment. Eventually, working will become part of my recovery, but not until I am stable enough to cope with working during a depressive episode.
The stigma I encountered with the woman at the food pantry will always be there, and I will encounter it again, I am sure. But since I have experienced it firsthand, I know how to respond to it in the future. I will no longer feel ashamed for being unemployed due to my mental illness, and I will not feel obligated to explain why I am unemployed. I will remind myself that I am doing what is best for my mental health and my recovery, and that, in time, I will return to the workforce mentally-strong and stable. I am sure I will have encounters with stigma that are hard to beat. I am sure that others will try to shame me for not working, and will probe me for the reason why. I will beat this stigma by holding my ground, not offering an explanation, and by constantly telling myself that I am doing what is best for me.
Madelyn Heslet is a 24-year-old single mother who writes about mental illness to advocate for mental health and do her part to end the stigma that surrounds it. She not only lives as a writer, but as a loving mother and dedicated full-time student. She writes a column for Painted Brain News