Humans acquire their self-worth from many sources. Beginning in childhood, our parents should be the first to show us both verbally and non-verbally that we are worthwhile and valuable.
However, people living with the after-effects of childhood trauma and in the present with severe mental health disabilities did not have the reassurances. This lack of caring leaves lasting scars that sometimes makes it impossible to attain a career or hold a job.
In this article, we are going to examine some of the realities and challenges involved with working, and how it is okay if one cannot.
What Society Expects is Harmful
Society has some very harmful views of people who they do not consider to be fulfilling the roles they believe they should.
Stay-at-home dads, single mothers, gay couples, and anyone else who move beyond what society considers “normal” receive a constant barrage of gossip, dirty looks, and negative comments.
I offer the experience of a member of my family as an example.
My brother grew up in the same dysfunctional home that I did. The resulting mental health issues he formed are devastating and not easy to overcome.
Because of his inability to work, my brother as a male faces hurdles of acceptance wherever he goes. Friends, family members, and the Pastor of the church he attends ask him questions about his employment constantly leaving him feeling full of shame and despair.
If my brother were to become ill with a heart attack or cancer, would these same people wag their heads and think him a lesser man because he cannot work?
It is exactly for the above reasons that many choose to either not seek help or to die by suicide.
After all, who wants to be the “bum” who is “cheating” his family because he doesn’t get off his “lazy” duff and work?
The discrimination against the mentally compromised has caused governments to give them only the bare necessities if even that. Medicaid, Medicare, and food stamps are helpful, but people in society today believe that those who need to use social services are robbing the system calling them “consumers” or “users.”
Looking for Employment When Emotionally Compromised
Despite the incredibly damaging expectations of society, working does offer many benefits. Different diagnoses of mental health conditions impact people in different ways and to different degrees.
One person who has received the diagnosis and struggles with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), for instance, may work full-time while another cannot get themselves out of the house.
It is both unfair and counterproductive to judge all people living with CPTSD by what others can or cannot do.
When it comes to working onsite in a job, there are other challenges as well.
Some people with a mental health condition might be capable of jumping into employment immediately, while others need minor accommodations from their employers.
Other folks need to re-enter the workforce gradually to avoid a relapse into symptoms of their diagnoses.
Actively seeking out and attaining employment when you have a mental health condition is overwhelming. Adding to the stress is the fact that many employers, although bound by law to hire the disabled, due to stigma are fearful of hiring someone who lives with a mental health condition.
Meaningful activities including school, part-time vs. full-time employment, and volunteering are ways to accomplish personal goals, be among others, and feel good about yourself.
The Power of Volunteering
Volunteering helps those who cannot work full or part-time receive the positive affirmations they need for their self-esteem while simultaneously helping others.
Also, without a commitment to an employer or a paycheck, volunteering offers the choice of deciding when to work and does not contradict nor harm disability benefits.
According to the website HelpGuide.org, offering your services as a volunteer has four benefits that make people feel healthier and happier.
Benefit One: Volunteering connects you to others.
Being on disability is very isolating. All your friends work, leaving you feeling lonely and disconnected to the world.
Volunteering makes it possible for you to reconnect to the community where you live while providing a vital service.
There are as many types of volunteer jobs as there are different types of people to fill them. Animal rescue organizations, hospitals, nursing homes, and schools are only a small fraction of volunteer activities in which to get involved.
As you volunteer your time you will notice quickly that you are making new connections and friendships plus gaining wonderful skills.
Benefit Two: Volunteering is good for you both physically and mentally.
Offering your time as a volunteer counteracts stress and anxiety by offering a healthy distraction. By lowering your anxiety level your body will be less likely to develop heart disease and stroke.
Volunteering helps fight depression by keeping you in contact with others and thus forming new connections that offer the chance to develop a stronger support system.
Volunteering can even increase your lifespan. In fact, studies have found that people, especially the elderly and disabled, who volunteer live much longer than those who do not.
Benefit Three: Volunteering Advances Your Career
Not only does volunteering increase the length of your life and help you feel a sense of purpose, but it also will help enormously should you decide to go to
Finding a volunteer job that works in an area you have an interest and turning it into a career someday is a tremendous idea. Not only will you learn the skills for your new career choice, but you will experience your new career choice without the danger of finding yourself trapped in a job you do not enjoy.
Plus, if you become ill again to the point you must quit or take extended time off, there is no harm done to your resume.
Speaking of your resume, if you have been away from employment for any amount of time, there will be huge gaps in your work history on your resume. By filling those blanks up with volunteer positions, you increase the chance of gaining the employment of your choice later.
Benefit Four: Volunteering offers a sense of fulfillment to your life
Volunteering allows one to explore the areas of passion in your life. Once you have found the position where you feel the best, doing meaningful work helping others become relaxing and a chance to spread your wings.
One should never underestimate the sense of fulfillment as a human being that volunteering and actively contributing to the lives of others brings.
The Pitfalls to Social Security Income (SSI) When Returning to Work
Disability benefits in the United States have become nearly impossible to qualify for and even when one does, the payments a person receives are mediocre at best.
If you have a family to support, these small amounts of pay force you to choose between staying alive and struggling hoping to have enough money to support your family or die by suicide so that the kids will receive death benefits.
Yes, it is as barbaric as it sounds.
Our society has relegated those who are mentally ill into a corner from which they cannot escape.
So, when considering looking for work, if your income is dependent on SSI benefits, you need to become aware of the limitations you face regarding your return to the workforce.
While people who receive SSDI have a work history and may qualify for SSI, often the recipients have never worked due to a mental or physical disability.
With an average benefit payment of $771 to an individual and $1,157 for a couple in 2019, social security income allows for a safety net for people in need. The qualifications for the fund include: being 65 or older, blind, disabled, a U.S. citizen or lawful resident, and having a very limited amount of income or other financial resources.
SSI sets extreme limitations on what you may own as assets. Stocks, bonds, and other assets worth more than $2,000 for individuals and $3,000 for couples will disqualify you from benefits. However, an exclusion allowance exists for the home, you live in, your car, and household goods.
One might think that SSI payments would be available for all the people living in the U.S. and her territories, but this is not the case. While forty-six states and the District of Columbia offer them, Arizona, Mississippi, North Dakota, and West Virginia do not.
Neither are social security income benefits allowed in most of the U.S. territories including Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa or Guam.
There is one exception. The Northern Mariana Islands allows SSI benefits, but the territory does not supplement the federal program so the amount earned would be considerably less.
Receiving Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) and Returning to Work
To qualify for SSDI, one must first have worked in employment recognized by social security and have paid into the system. However, the greatest obstacle to receiving SSDI benefits is the strict eligibility criteria.
The SSDI criteria involve a set of rules to determine if one has become afflicted with a totally disabling condition or if you can work in a type of employment requiring less physical labor.
Generally, the criteria include five questions, are you working, is your condition severe, is your problem on the list of approved disabling conditions, can you do the job you did previously, and can you do any other type of work?
Returning to work can be tricky once you are receiving SSDI. Should the Social Security Administration determine you can perform substantial gainful activity (SGA) and earning more than a set amount, they will do a determination and end your benefits.
Should you decide to return to work, there is a limit of how much you can earn before you lose part or all your benefits. In 2019, the amount you can earn that determines if you have returned to substantial gainful activity is $1,220 for non-blind and $2,040 for those who are blind.
There is an exception to the above rules on SGA, the trial work period.
During the trial work period, a person receiving SSDI may test their ability to work without putting their benefits in danger. You must work at least nine months (not necessarily consecutively) in a rolling sixty-month period with earnings of more than $880 above your allotted amount of either $1,220 or $2,040 per month.
It is clear, returning to a paid position has its benefits and drawbacks. It is vital to know and plan for these limitations.
Now for Some Important Information for Those Who Cannot Work
There are many of us who live with mental disabilities who simply cannot return to work. Even volunteering like I have done for a peaceful and quiet art gallery is overwhelming when your disorder is not in remission.
To you, and to myself, I wish to offer the following affirming and comforting words.
It is okay that you cannot work at employment of any type, your full-time job is healing, and healing is the toughest job in the world.
Let’s face it, it takes huge determination and guts to face your disorder and the reasons you formed it. Looking your past in the face and overcoming it takes years of hard work.
Going to therapy is one of the hardest and most dangerous positions I have ever held. People who do not know what working on these issues is like would run away with their tails between their legs should they need to do it.
I dare say, many would give up.
The inability to work because you are ill is not a crime and should never be how anyone values another human being. Even without a disabling illness, all humans deserve respect and dignity.
There are no exceptions.
I challenge you to consider this.
The next time someone asks where you work, look the person inquiring in the eye and say, “I am healing, what do you do?”
The confused look you receive is priceless.