Accessing help is hard when you don;t fit the stereotype – professionals with mental illness

I work full time in the Commonwealth Public Service in Canberra. I have done this since 2007. I have a very good income, an education and a mortgage. I wear suits to work. Money is not an issue for me and has not been an issue for a good while. I also have a severe mental illness.  When I moved to Canberra in 2007 I decided – after years of seeing a psychiatrist – that I would access my medication through a GP and not find myself a psychiatrist. I had been ‘well’ for many years at that point and imagined that I would continue to be so into the future.

Fast forward a few years and I had a year of stresses. Firstly I applied for a promotion at work and was successful. For some reason I became extremely anxious about the application and the anxiety took on a life of its own. I should have heard the warning bells at this point for that kind of ongoing anxiety with no actual trigger had brought about mental illness episodes in the past. But, content in the knowledge that I was a middle manager in the public service and surely mental illness couldn’t touch me, I ignored it and continued being successful. A couple of months later and I had issues with the lovely little flat I had just purchased. The apartment upstairs had a leak which went down the wall into my kitchen. Shortly afterwards I had to replace my shower and there was a comedy of errors between the plumber and the tiler. This triggered severe anxiety which lasted for six months. I could’t look at any part of my house without my heart racing. After a few months I started to have some odd experiences: I became terrified of a ghost in my house, but I couldn’t tell anyone about it as the ghost would hear me and try to kill me. I firmly believed that I was dead and in purgatory, I thought i had angered God by being arrogant, Everything looked very strange – almost like it was alive. Added to this I became very depressed. I did not access help because it didn’t occur to me that I needed it.

By the time I sought help I was extremely unwell. Then began a period of about three months of unsuccessfully trying to access assistance from the mental health services and begin told that I didn’t need it. ‘Did you go to work today?’ the person on the phone would ask. When I responded that I had been at work they would dismiss any concern I raised. The assumption was that if I was going to work then surely I couldn’t need any help? Yes, I was attending work and somehow managing to perform at the expected standard. Here is a list of other things that were going on which the mental health services neglected to ask me about:

  • I would’t use the shower thinking it was leaking and instead washed with a bar of soap and a bucket of warm water
  • I would’t use the washing machine because I thought it was broken. I instead did all my washing by hand
  • I didn’t cook and consisted on a can of dolmades (stuffed vine leaves) and a block of Lindt pistachio chocolate each night (I don’t know what the supermarket staff thought about my idiosyncratic purchases)
  • I was absolutely terrified of the ghost in my house but couldn’t mention it because he (the ghost) might hear.
  • Everything I looked at seemed to be alive
  • I couldn’t leave my house for fear it would be destroyed while I was away.

Had one of the mental health workers asked about these things they may have had a different response. After three months of knowing I was unwell but not knowing how to access help I was terrified that I would be unwell for the rest of my life  – which at that point didn’t seem likely to be a very long time – and to have no treatment.

What followed when I inevitably ended up in hospital was that I spent the next three years in and out of hospital, residential programs and other such (expensive) things. Had I received help earlier I imagine I may not have needed such intense assistance.

What all this illustrates – among other things – is that people like me who do not fit the rather narrow stereotype of people with serious mental illness can struggle to get any help at all. The scary things about this include that a number of people may be in danger due to this – I know I was. Also, the amount of frustration and suffering people like me experience when unable to get help is quite high and there are a lot of people in the same situation. I know. I have met a bunch of them! The other issue is around what having such a stereotype means for the people with mental illness who aren’t professional employees. When I was in hospital I often had nurses say to me ‘Why don’t you go on the pension? Working must be stressful.’ The assumption is that people with mental illness can’t work and that if we do the stress is detrimental to our health. So we ‘shouldn’t’ work and if we do, we either get overlooked for assistance or we are told to fit the stereotype by leaving our job.

I’m not going to draw a lot of inferences from any of this as it speaks for itself but it is far from ideal.

And for the record my job is the best thing I have (other than Mr Kitty!). It is good for my mental health.

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Me at work

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7 thoughts on “Accessing help is hard when you don;t fit the stereotype – professionals with mental illness

  1. Thanks for sharing your difficult experiences – a job usually has a protective effect for mental health – I am surprised they would think not working would be good for a person (unless you work down a coal mine or something equally horrible).

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  2. Hi Jeanette.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences. If you don’t mind me asking, how did you get your job as a public servant?

    Here is my situation, in case you are interested: I have been unemployed for a year, I live in Sydney. I would very much like to get a job as a public servant, and have applied to ABS and several other governments departments a number of times. I got 2 interviews with ABS for casual roles though, but neither was successful, and I have not heard from them again despite being on their register, so I presume I disappointed them (they initially seemed interested, based on my resume). I have a Masters degree (now almost 10 years old), but my job history is quite patchy and consists mostly of random menial jobs. I have Asperger’s Syndrome/ASD, but not other diagnosis (I do however have significant problems with anxiety, depression, and fluctuating physical issues – fatigue and other issues, and very low self confidence in relation to work). I didn’t disclose Asperger’s in connection with the job applications, but did tick “Yes” to having a disability, and explained some issues (noise sensitivity) in an interview when they asked. I have the feeling that if I got in, and proved that I can do a good job, that I would be able to have a career as a public servant and be quite useful, but I am not doing well in interviews, and don’t know what to do to get in.

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    1. Hi Anna,

      I got my public service job through a graduate recruitment round and I also used the National Disability Recruitment Coordinator which at that time managed bulk rounds for large employers, including Government employers. I understand that the NDRC may have changed its role since then (2006) I have a number of factors which could disadvantage me in employment, including a mental illness (atypical schdpzhrenia) and criminal history as well as being Autistic. I was always up front with everything which could have been an issue and disclosed Autism and mental illness and criminal history at interview, and with my managers when I started work. I think a big difference between when I got my job and now is probably the smaller number of public servants being recruited. It is considerably harder to get a public service job now than it was when I joined, for a variety of reasons.
      I hope you have success in your quest for an APS job. 🙂 ip

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      1. Thank you very much for your reply:-) I never heard about the National Disability Recruitment Coordinator before, it will see if there is anything they can do to help.

        I forgot to mention that I am also an immigrant … so any sort of insider information about the job market & system works in Australia is helpful. I sought help from a DES last year… Nova Employment. They were definitely not geared to helping someone like me, and I regret I even tried. I just ended up feeling humiliated, and still do when I think about it (and no job, or career progress made at all).

        I have a number of factors which could disadvantage me in employment, including a mental illness (atypical schdpzhrenia) and criminal history as well as being Autistic.

        That is what I thought… You still landed a job despite your obstacles, and managed to keep it and thrive in it for good many years. It makes me think that I should be able to get a job too, as I do not even have as severe barriers (at least at a glance).

        Thanks for your advice/sharing your experience about disclosure, I will think more about it. I think it might be a good idea. I am not doing well at interviews, and perhaps it will help.

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