Mental Illness and Work: Capability, Dignity, Small Steps

Three hundred people showed up to a job fair this month for seasonal work at a local tourist attraction. Twenty people were hired, and one of them is my son Ben.  Why is this such a big deal? Because Ben hasn’t been hired for a job in over eight years, since before his first hospitalization for schizophrenia. I am so overwhelmed with surprise and pride at this news that I realize I hadn’t even dared to dream that this could happen yet for Ben.  In recent years, he’d begun to succeed in college part-time (the fact that he is starting to know what he can realistically handle is a huge step in itself.)

So much of Ben’s growth in recovery has happened in these small steps that this huge leap into the work world scares me a little – yet I know (and keep reminding myself) that this is Ben’s journey.  My questions – will this be too much stress for him? will he be able to wake himself up every morning when he has to get to work by 8:30? will his schoolwork suffer? – are ones I must keep to myself, and trust my son and his team of caseworkers to handle the answers without me.

But – over-riding all this is the wonderful pride I see in my son’s eyes.  The value of having an actual job, of feeling useful, of being wanted for what you can offer: yes, indeed, priceless.  Ben, who while in the throes of the onset of his symptoms wrote that work was a “government plot designed to enslave us,” has now changed his mind.  This week he wrote this:

If I were to give one piece of advice to the reader of this ‘message’, I would say that in order to get to where you want to be in life, what you have to do is walk the path.  Now, I understand that this probably sounds easier said than done, and – I won’t lie- it is. I now have goals for my life, and I must be willing to actually perform the steps that the goals require. One way to make this easier is to learn from one’s past, and embrace the lessons which will make walking the path easier. – Ben, 2011

A huge question, though, is one that no one on his team seems to be able to answer correctly – what, exactly, will be the effect of this minimum-wage job on Ben’s benefits?
His job coach says he is an “employment specialist”, not a “benefits specialist,” so he doesn’t know. Ben’s group home staff members ask his agency caseworkers, who ask their supervisors.  Wrong answers abound.

Finally, I find some answers. Tips to help you, if you are in similar circumstances:

  • There is a “benefits specialist” somewhere in the system.  Hunt and find.
  • Social Security has a “Ticket to Work” program designed to help those receiving disability benefits as they take steps to self-sufficiency. Go to for details
  • There are different rules for SSDI, SSI, and any additional benefits you might get on a state level.

Ben is walking his path. Today. And someone has finally noticed – enough to hire him. I, as always, have my fingers crossed and my gratitude high. Having a job to go to is so the most amazing boost for Ben’s dignity. Is it that way for you, or your relative with mental illness?

0 thoughts on “Mental Illness and Work: Capability, Dignity, Small Steps

  1. I'm proud for Ben,I remember the times my son got jobs and went to school, I think they made him feel more a part of the world rather than the outsider. My son is 26 and has had the schizo symptoms for 10 years although it took a while to finally get the diagnosis of schizoaffective. What my son has found is that he can do anything, for a while. He has sold termite plans, got As in college, worked in a supermarket etc. The problem for him has been maintaining. When he's doing good it's great, but he can also go down fast. The plus through all of this is that through his experiences he has learned what his needs and limitations are, and is taking small steps,working on attaining goals that will enable him to not only build his life, but to be able to maintain what he builds. He has learned that he needs a job with flexibility, preferably something that he can do independently, to be able to adjust his schedule in the harder times. The important thing is that each thing he tries is more learning for him. When he has been unable to maintain, we stress that the only way to fail is by not trying. He has also through all of this become much more self sufficient.

  2. Hi Kimly –

    Thanks! I can completely relate to your story with your son. Yes, maintaining is the key, and I've got my fingers crossed as always. I'm so glad that your son is starting to "get" what he needs. That's true for Ben, too. Ten years ago – hell, two years ago – he would have dismissed this job as "beneath him." Now he is thrilled to work – even though the money he earns will mostly go to make up for benefits lost, the real plus is in the pride he's feeling. Those of us – like you and me – who love someone with mental illness know how big the small steps really are.
    As always, keeping an eye on stress level, as Ben is in school and at work. Suddenly, he's got a full plate. Kinda scary…
    Thanks for your insightful comment.

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