Monday, September 5, 2016

Un-Labor Day

We are celebrating Labor Day today in the U.S. This is the day that we recognize the hard work of those across our country whose collective effort helps our nation to keep advancing and remain as one of the wealthiest nations in the world. It also signifies the unofficial end of the summer season.

For many individuals living with mental health conditions, however, today is not a day to celebrate. Work for many individuals is something that is just not possible right now. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Social Security Income (SSI) both provide needed financial assistance to many people in the United States who have mental health conditions. (For more information go to: SSI and SSDI

SSDI provides monthly income to individuals who are limited in their ability to work because of a physical or mental disability. Currently almost nine million individuals receive SSDI, and as of 2013, 35.2% of recipients qualify for disability based on a mental health condition. The Social Security Administration uses its own definitions of disability and its own diagnostic criteria for determining whether or not an individual has a certain disability. SSI provides financial assistance to low income, disabled individuals. While SSDI requires a disability and minimum past work requirements, SSI requires disability and financial need, determined by your income and current assets. Over eight million individuals currently receive SSI. (National Alliance on Mental Illness)

I’ve had personal experience of being on SSDI. From about 1989 to 1992 I was receiving this government benefit. This came as a result of my Bipolar Disorder interfering with my ability to work. At this time it was easier to get Social Security benefits whereas now most people have to apply only to have their case denied and therefore having to appeal it. I’ve worked with some in my counseling career who have had repeated attempts only to be turned down time after time.

As I traversed the rocky road of early recovery, work was hit or miss. I attempted to hold a job however there were several occasions when I was just not capable of doing so. Once in May of 1983 I took a position as a laborer working on the early stages of refurbishing a department store. I lasted one week. This was followed by a summer of deep depression that culminated in a hospitalization at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center.

I will admit, however, that despite the trouble I was having during these years, I always wanted to work. It was just difficult to remain employed.

From 1980 to 1987 I was on a carousel of repeated hospitalizations. During this period I also was enrolled in college. First at General Motors Institute, followed by the University at Buffalo, and then State University of New York (SUNY) Buffalo State. As I stated previously I worked intermittently. I finally graduated from Buffalo State with a Broadcasting Degree with the hopes of making it as a radio producer. I ended up getting a job at a local recording studio however I only lasted one year, realizing that I didn’t have “the chops” to make it in that profession.

I went on to work as a “temp” for a local employment agency. I did everything from stuffing envelopes to working in a law library as a messenger. This helped me to keep moving and to not get sedentary or comfortable with not working. It also helped me to keep a little money in my pocket.

I got into 12-Step recovery around this time and things got better. I ended up returning to school to take course work to become an alcoholism counselor. I competed the program and got my first “real” job in my chosen profession, A few years into this position I had another break which required me to take three months out of work. But fortunately due to a very understanding administration I was able to come back.

I’ve seen many people struggle with the prospect of working. I was there too. One thing I learned along the way was to take what I call “healthy risks.” What I mean by this is that I had to go outside my comfort zone to advance and meet my professional goals.

Now this wasn’t as easy early in my recovery. There were substantial periods of time when I just was not capable of working, not, as I said before that I didn’t want to. There were even times when getting out of bed was a major accomplishment.

But I kept moving. I had a lot of support from my family, which certainly didn’t hurt. I also was actively involved with psychotherapy and a psychiatrist for medication.

But as much as anything I had to be patient which can be hard to come by. One. Day. At. A. Time. That certainly took a certain degree of persistence.

As of today I have been working successfully for over 21 years (24 if you include the period when I had my last BP episode). I’ve worked as an addictions counselor at an outpatient clinic as well as in college admissions and administration, a counselor in a mental health day program, a service coordinator, and most recently in my current position as the Director of Community Advocacy at the Mental Health Association of Erie County and Compeer Buffalo.

As with anyone else, I’ve had some days when I just didn’t feel like going to work but I went anyway. There is something to be said for a good work ethic. Remarkably I’ve had a very good work history. I’ve taken very few “mental health days” and I’ve enjoyed most of the work I’ve been involved with over the years.

If anyone had told me when I was struggling that I’d be doing what I do today along with the professional work history I’ve had over the last 24 years I never would have believed them. I did have hope that I could do it though and there were many days that this was all I could hold onto.

Recovery is different for everyone. It’s true that there are those who, due to their mental health condition, are unable to work. But this is, in my opinion, the exception to the rule. Most people can work to some degree, even if it means taking on a job that may be volunteer or part-time. For those on SSI and SSDI there are limits on how much a person can make. The Ticket to Work program, sponsored by the U.S. Social Security Administration is available for those may want to use a trail work period to ease back into the workforce.

Working isn’t easy. That’s why it’s called work. But it is often overlooked in the wellness equation. Work brings with it a sense of pride and accomplishment. There may be times when, due to the economic climate, work can be hard to come by. But this should not be a deterrent. We may have to take a job that is not exactly what we’d like to do but it can be a springboard into something better.

So take that healthy risk. Don’t let anyone (even yourself) tell you what you can’t do. It’s amazing what the human mind and will are capable of if you put effort into it.

Keep the faith!


  1. That's an excellent piece Karl. We are all different, there is no status quo with mental illness, each of us react differently towards the same stimulus.Sometimes I wish they could jump into my mind and see what it's like for me. They can't be me , I'm the only one who can be me. I am unique like everyone else yet I'm different in the way I feel.No one can jump into you and fix things, it is strictly my journey and it must come first from me.