There have been a lot of interesting comments on my recent article for The Mighty about why I felt it was crucial for me to stop working for a period of time in order to recover from my mental illnesses.
The most common negative comments have been those people who feel that work is essential to recovery and don’t want to accept that there may be an alternative viewpoint on this or that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to mental wellbeing will never be effective.
Frustratingly, the second most prevalent type of comment came from people who think that although not working might be an important part of recovery, it should not or cannot be allowed because most people are not able to make this choice because they need to work in order to survive. I’m not going to bother addressing separately the viewpoints of more bigoted commenters who simply implied that people with mental illnesses are lazy, faking or not trying hard enough because my aim here is not to justify the existence of mental illness. I take that as a given. It is to respond to those who found my views on work and mental illness (with the understanding that there is such a thing) challenging. This is because I hope to allow a greater insight to these people into the worlds of others and to help them to look more compassionately at those whose pathways diverge from their own.
Because of the prevalence of comments of this type, and the impossibility of responding personally to each commenter, I decided to write a follow up post addressing these themes.
1. To everyone who disagrees on the grounds that for them personally work has been a lifeline and crucial to their recovery, I say this:
The article does acknowledge that for some people work can be a crucial lifeline. But it is not always simply a case of trying harder and being determined to cope.
Work is not necessarily conducive to recovery for everyone at all times. As with any other illness, there may be times when a person is too unwell to work for a period because work is causing them harm or getting in the way of their recovery.
Rather than causing a sense of pride and purpose, for some work can lead to intense feelings of failure, anxiety and self-criticism and lead to use of unhealthy coping mechanisms and high risk behaviours.
In addition, for some people, work is in itself a negative coping mechanism – people overwork to block out emotional distress.
I think that the majority of people would agree that being too physically unwell to work is not a sign of laziness or lack of caring. People cannot “think” themselves “well”. And whether physically or mentally unwell, everyone copes differently; some people also prefer to work through physical illness. Work for them serves as a healthy distraction, helping them to keep motivated and retain a sense of hope and purpose. But for others, the best route to recovery is rest and recuperation. Only an individual and their support network and healthcare professionals are qualified to make this decision at any time in a person’s life.
The primary difference is that when someone is too physically unwell to work, society doesn’t generally judge them as being “weak” and “giving in” to the illness. So why do we judge people who need to stop work for a while to facilitate their mental health recovery these ways? When it comes to mental illness there is an expectation that people just push through and those who don’t are “weak” and “lazy”, or “just not trying”.
2. To everyone who commented that I am “lucky”, “privileged” or that it’s “OK for some”, but most don’t have “the luxury” of being able to “choose” this because their circumstances dictate that they “can’t afford” not to work. And to everyone who assumed I am in the “1% that doesn’t need to work to stay alive”, I say this:
Firstly, I do not have any financial security. I have no savings, I do not own a house and I do not live on an inheritance, allowance or income from my parents. I have fought hard to be allocated disability benefits. It is a very small amount of money, and only just enough to keep a roof over my head. And so this is not a life of luxury, nor is it a life of leisure.
I don’t complain about my financial circumstances, in fact I am hugely grateful for what I get, because it’s the best life I am able to have at the moment, and I know that, hard as it is, I am sacrificing now so that I will benefit (and be able to contribute to the world) in future. But actually I struggle each and every day. I work really hard. And partly because for me, not going to work is hard! I know that doesn’t necessarily fit with a lot of people’s world view, but it is absolutely true for me. At the moment, my recovery and the advocacy work I do alongside that, are more than a full time job!
Secondly, I just want to say that, contrary to the assumptions of many commenters, I have in fact worked and paid tax for most of my life. I appreciated the benefit system for the fantastic job it does of supporting those in need when I was paying into it, and I appreciate it equally now I am one of the people who needs it to survive.
And finally, the notion that “we ‘must’ work because we need money to live” may be true in our society as it is, but it does not necessarily follow that “work is healthy and helpful for all people at all times”. Just because we have to do something in order to survive, doesn’t mean it is helpful or right.
Maintaining a level of “quiet desperation” is not the best hope for someone with mental illness. Full recovery is possible, and if work is making someone’s illness worse, for whatever reason, then changes need to be made, whether to a different and more fulfilling kind of work, or simply taking some time of for self-discovery and healing.
Whatever it takes for each individual to recover is the right path for them, and I totally accept that for many people the routine, structure and rewards of meaningful work are the path to recovery. But I think it is equally important to acknowledge that for others, taking time off to break self-destructive patterns of perfectionism and compulsive over-work is the only way in which to achieve a state of mind where meaningful and rewarding work is possible.