October 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.

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