Many forced to hide mental illness at work

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More than 30,000 people with long-term mental-health problems may be concealing their psychiatric history from employers and colleagues for fear of discrimination or losing their jobs.

People with a mental illness are less likely to have a job than if they are blind, deaf, have breathing difficulties or a learning disability. Often employers do not know how to deal with mental-health problems in the workplace, leaving employees prey to stigma, according to Mind, which yesterday hosted a conference in London on employment and mental health.

Only one in five people with a long-term mental-health problem, which can include phobias, depression, anxiety and schizophrenia, are economically active, compared to 83 per cent of the population at large. Around 58,000 such people are employed in total.

Those with a mental problem fare worse than those with physical disability when it comes to unemployment. Of those available for work, nearly four out of 10 were unemployed, compared to 20 per cent of those with a visual impairment, 15 per cent with a hearing impairment or 26 per cent with chest or breathing problems.

An earlier survey for Mind which questioned 800 people with mental-health problems found 34 per cent said they had to resign or were dismissed and more than half had concealed their psychiatric history. A man diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder said: "On two occasions I lied when I applied for jobs. On both these occasions I said that my two-and- a- half-year absence from employment was due to a term spent in prison. I was accepted for the first and shortlisted for the second. Whenever I have been truthful about my psychiatric past I have never been accepted for a job."

Liz Sayce, Mind's policy director said: "Employers have begun to realise that someone who is blind can be an excellent employee and do not want to waste their potential talent. There is nothing like this among people with a mental-health problem. There are still stereotyped fears where we write people off as a generalisation instead of seeing them as an individual on their own merits."

From work done in the US, employers' most common fears are that those with a mental illness would be unreliable. Ms Sayce added: "The evidence is that those who are employed do not have any worse fitness records ... The long-term disabled ... often tend to be more punctilious and do not take the odd days off that others might."

'I didn't know how to get help'

Before his breakdown, Ian Payne (right) felt that as a nurse he could not turn to anyone at work for help over the stress he was feeling: "The image of nurses is that they cope ... I didn't know how to get help." In the end, he "exploded" and walked off the ward, resigning. After setting up a lobby group with another nurse to highlight the stress nurses are under, he also started training to be a psychiatric nurse, and says he is now always open about his psychiatric history. "My ... work at the hospital is now just a memory. I feel I have a new life now."