Can Stigma Prevent Employment?

OCT. 16, 2017

By Luna Greenstein


The short answer is yes—stigma does prevent people with mental illness from getting a job. But why?

Well, people with mental health conditions are typically held responsible and blamed for their behavior and symptoms. Simultaneously, they are perceived as unable to make decisions for themselves. This causes people with mental health conditions to be perceived as “unsuitable” for the workforce. In fact, Gary Becker, a Nobel prize-winning economist concluded that discrimination lowers the probability that members of a stigmatized group will be hired, and their wages are significantly reduced if they are.

This is especially true for people with schizophrenia, who fare poorer than any other disadvantaged group in the labor market. Individuals living with the condition are 6–7 times more likely to be unemployed than the general population with a 70-90% unemployment rate—a higher rate than any other group with disabilities in the United States. To make matters worse, research study Labor Market Outcomes of Persons with Mental Disorders points out the sad truth that improved treatments for schizophrenia have only had a marginal impact on employment outcomes.

The message those living with schizophrenia often hear is that their future is limited by the severity of their condition—that their abilities and talents live only in the shadows of their symptoms. But the truth is: People experiencing schizophrenia are more often limited by stereotypes and stigma than their actual symptoms.

How Can This Be Improved?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the largest component of the total cost of schizophrenia is the loss of income due to unemployment. More policies need to be put in place to help people with schizophrenia acquire jobs. Here are some things they can do to ensure a person with schizophrenia can begin and continue working:

Company leaders and managers can:

  • Recognize mental illness as a legitimate workplace concern.
  • Develop policies that address mental health. For example, policies that help reintegrate an employee after a leave of absence for treatment.
  • Provide management training. Companies who provide manager training to promote well-being within their teams are able to accelerate that. It is essential for a person with schizophrenia to have a healthy environment to be able to manage both work and symptoms.
  • Increase engagement on mental health. Gallup research shows managers influence 70% of their team’s engagement, and that engaged workers are 28% more likely to participate in a wellness program, which may be able to help someone in recovery.

Human resources can:

  • Work to understand anti-discrimination laws. Those laws may be affecting their company’s employment policies.
  • Enforce those laws. Make sure the company is not discriminating against candidates with mental health conditions.

Individuals can:

  • Educate yourself. There’s always more to learn, and the more you learn, the more awareness you can spread to others.
  • Be open to conversations. The best way to stop stigma is by normalizing mental illness as a topic of conversation.
  • Use non-stigmatizing language (always). Never call someone “crazy” because of their condition, use their condition to characterize them (“Jim’s a schizophrenic”), or make them feel like an “other” for something that is out of their control.
  • Show understanding. It’s okay if you don’t fully understand mental illness, you can still show empathy and support for someone’s struggle. See the person, not their condition.

Whether you own a company or work for one, you can make a difference because the root of the problem is stigma. Stigma doesn’t start with human resources or company executives—it starts with individuals and how they perceive schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. For those who live with schizophrenia, getting back to work is often a top recovery goal. Support them and NAMI’s movement to create a stronger, StigmaFree culture. Let them know there is hope. Together, we can change the way the world sees mental illness.


Laura Greenstein is communications coordinator at NAMI.


DEC, 12, 2017 09:31:08 PM
Robert Dutton
I'm in my 50's right now and have been out of work since 2008. I have higher functioning Autism, Asperger Syndrome, and a myriad of lessor issues. I have a masters degree in Logistics, a handful of years working as an engineer (no degree), and what feels like a hundred years of labor type positions... and none of this matters due to not fitting in. I have never been able to hold a job for very long, and I'm miles past the edge of Disenfranchised. I guess you can say I'm mentally busted, and carry no ticket to ride on the employment train. I don't want more school, I want a job that is suitable to my skills, and flipping burgers would be no different than any other labor type job. Work hard and work your way up? As you see that is not even on my plate. Can someone help? I'm all ears.

OCT, 29, 2017 05:18:11 PM
I was recently fired from my job as a Certified Peer Specialist at a local IRTS Facility. I disclosed my disability during my initial interview with the Treatment Director at the time. I am diagnosed with a handful of things, but the underlying issue that supersedes them all is: OCD. I have many rituals & routines that I am very embarrassed & ashamed of & the worst, most time-consuming ones occur from the minute I wake up, until I’ve showered & I’m ready to conquer the day. These rituals & routines can take as little as 4 hours, but up to 8 hours. I am seeing a therapist & psychiatrist weekly & following recommendations. Work was going really well & so was my recovery...

...Up until a new Treatment Director was hired in January of 2017, after I had been working at the facility for over 9 months. A TD with no management experience & a TD who was able to empathize with residents or with me regarding our diagnoses. He told me I would need to get a note from my Dr so that a reasonable accommodation could be talked about. I asked my Dr. and he said it would be reasonable to allow me an hour to get to my shifts.

So a reasonable accommodation was put into place starting at the end of February of 2017. But I had already been working close to a year without one, and making improvements in my punctuality. Unfortunately, there were instances where I ended up coming a few minutes later than an hour. Each time that happened, the TD wrote me up, got HR on the phone, and I was told my behavior was unacceptable, that the company’s bottom line was somehow being affected, and my actions directly impacted residents. (Keep in mind, I was working part-time, and my shifts were swing shifts, so there wasn’t anyone waiting for me to relieve them of their shift. I began acting as a peer specialist after graduating training in May of 2017, and in working with my peers, I disclosed my struggles, and my peers were accepting of my struggles, as I was with theirs) This continued for months. I dreaded going to work because I feared being late. This anxiety drove my obsessions & compulsions & the time increased. Another frustrating factor was knowing that I was the only one getting written up for being late, despite being completely transparent about why I needed the extra time. There were several other staff members that had a problem with being consistently late, but had NEVER been reprimanded.

I tried to explain to HR & to the new TD that disciplining me for symptoms of my diagnoses, was not going to help me improve; in fact, it WAS only going to increase my anxiety and worsen my symptoms. But my concerns were ignored, and I beat myself up for being late and so did my supervisor.

A few weeks ago I was given an ultimatum: if I was late to work one more time, I would be fired. I didn’t know what to do because I knew my OCD was only worsening with the stress of knowing I might lose my job. Inevitably, I was late by 5-10 minutes to a shift I had offered to pick up as we were short staffed, something I often did, and that was it . . .fired.

I’m still at a loss for words. I was working for a company that purports to help fight stigma, empower those with mental health diagnoses to search for work, & ironically, I was fired for that very thing. Trying to work and empower peers to do the same.

Has anyone else experienced this? How did you cope? What I’ve learned is that I get fired from jobs when I’m sober, but I’m able to keep them when I’m not! And I don’t like that lesson. :(

OCT, 23, 2017 08:52:53 PM
James Hayes
sad but true

OCT, 19, 2017 05:59:24 PM
Cheryl Netter
I have been in recovery from bipolar disorder for over 15 years. I am a suicide attempt survivor. I found not being in the work place was not healthy for me. I now work in the mental health field as a Peer Program Coordinator. I am also a member of the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Genesee and Orleans Counties. I am a member of NAMI

OCT, 16, 2017 01:50:48 PM
Tiffany Hilton
I work specifically with young adults diagnosed with Schizophrenia and Schizoaffective disorder. I represent Preventative and Recovery of Early Psychosis Center. PARC at Eskenazi Midtown Hospital.

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