How can I get people to give me a chance?
June 6, 2009 10:56 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone help a person who has had moderate to severe mental health problems find employment?

I have had relatively severe social phobia and avoidance issues for a long time. I can count the people I actually know on my fingers.

I haven't worked since the end of 2002, doing menial retail work.

I've been attending university on and off since 2001. Mostly random stuff like metaphysics, economics, geology, and foreign language. I've dropped a lot of classes due to my anxiety.

I have rarely left the house in the past year, only to infrequently apply for work and get food and stuff.

I am a reasonably smart person, I guess, and I am a hard worker. I am sort of good-looking and can be charming with a group of total strangers (if I don't talk about myself). I was on the path to getting better until my mother died in October of 2007. I kind of had a relapse and shut myself off from the world even more.

My work history, lack of non-familial references and sporadic college coursework make me look like a complete loser. But I'm not. How can I get people to see this?

Please e-mail me at if you want more background, I could barely write this post about myself.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds from your description that you're still struggling with the anxiety and agrophobia. Rather than searching for employment, you might look into going back to school and getting some help from the mental-health services associated with the school. Then, once you complete more coursework, you can show prospective employers that you are able to handle daily challenges.

If you feel instead that employment would be better for you than continued schooling, I think you're going to have to start menial (if you find retail too socially demanding, try filing or data-entry), put in the weeks and months and even a couple of years of regular attendance, build up references, and work your way up. There's really no way to convince people that you're capable of taking on responsibilities other than either graduating from a degree program, or doing menial work until you've made it clear you're capable of more.

Best of luck. The more you get out and do, the more you'll find that you can live your life despite your anxious feelings, and the more the anxiety will fade. You can conquer it -- not so that it will disappear, but so that it won't run your life. I'm proud of you that you have felt this way so long and are still committed to doing good work and living life.
posted by palliser at 11:43 AM on June 6, 2009

Get yourself set up with some mental health care. Then (assuming you're in the US), go to your county's vocational rehab office. In conjunction with regular mental health treatment, they can help you if you need any training and they can help you find a job with employers who have agreed to work with disabled individuals.
posted by Danila at 12:23 PM on June 6, 2009

Also, consider a telecommuting or a "work from home" job. Obviously not one of those "process forms for 60 bucks an hour" fake jobs that shows up in your spam folder, but there are plenty of legitimate ones in a variety of fields.
posted by Spacelegoman at 1:18 PM on June 6, 2009

I could have written this myself. I have problems with anxiety (especially social anxiety), endured a long period of joblessness, and a relapse/depressive episode after the death of a relative. I went to college twice -- and dropped out both times. On paper, I really don't look like much, and surely that's foremost on your mind as well.

But I currently have a job that I love, which has helped me build my confidence in a big way. It's not a dream job by any stretch of the imagination, but it was perfect for where I happened to be at in my life when I took it last fall, and it's helped me prepare for bigger and better things. I also recently overcame a major phobia and finally got my driver's license at age 30+.

The thing you have to keep in mind at all times is that you're a good person and you have value to offer the world. You have some troubles right now, but those troubles don't define you.

What I recommend is that you start by getting into the habit of putting yourself out there, even if it's scary, even if it's just a little bit at first. You'll send out resumes that don't get any response. You'll probably go through a few (or even many) interviews that are discouraging. But the thing you'll find is that the more you endure these things, the less scary they get. Maybe a prospective employer will say something critical about you to your face, and you'll go home and feel rotten. But you wake up the next morning and you're still you, the world is still spinning, and maybe you learned something from the experience that you can apply to the next attempt.

Try putting yourself out there with other people too -- this doesn't have to be anything major, or involve a high-stakes kind of exchange. Smile at a stranger once a day. Say hello to the letter carrier. Call a friend just to say hi. Think of it as practice. Again, the more you do it, the less scary it gets.

Don't get discouraged if you take something harsh and feel rotten or shaky for a while afterward. Let yourself feel low and get it out of your system, and then get back on the horse.

With regards to employment specifically, have you considered temping? This may or may not be feasible depending on where you live. The fantastic thing about temping is that it takes a lot of pressure off you to perform. You can always say to yourself, "welp, this isn't my job!" People may think that sounds terrible but I find, as an anxious person, that a healthy amount of apathy helps me perform better than I would otherwise -- if I'm too wrapped up in trying to be perfect, I make a lot of mistakes. Plus the stakes are much lower. Who cares if the gal in the next cube shoots you dirty looks? You'll be out of there soon enough.

A few things really helped me:

1. Exercise. I work out 4-5 times a week, have a ton more energy than I used to, and also dropped a good deal of weight. I happen to own a treadmill, which took a lot of pressure out of the equation than might have existed if I'd had to walk around the neighborhood or go to a gym, so this may be a thorny one to accomplish as a social phobic. This single change will probably have the greatest overall impact on your life, so if there is any way you can work some exercise into your routine, it will be tremendously beneficial.

2. Taking steps to address the causes of the anxiety. If there are resources you can use to find a therapist (cognitive-behavioral will probably be what you want to look for), please take advantage of them. This can be a scary thing, I understand, and I was reluctant to take that step myself. If finding a therapist is daunting, please pick up a copy of The Worry Cure by Robert L. Leahy. This is one of the only self-help books that I've ever gotten any lasting benefit from. It describes the various types of anxiety to help you identify what your triggers are, and has some excellent and practical instructions about how to neutralize your particular type of worry, some of which are contrary to common wisdom. (For example, the author explains why the 'rubber band' desensitization technique is actually counterproductive for an anxious person.)

3. Interacting with others just for practice, as I suggested above. I try to smile at a stranger at least once a day. It's not about getting a reaction (though generally people respond favorably, which is nice!), it's about practice and forming a good habit.

4. Valerian root. I started taking it primarily as a non-addictive sleep aid, but it has a very nice secondary effect of taking the edge off my anxiety in a major way. Please do your own research and/or consult with a professional before you start taking any medication or supplement. Just because it's been great for me doesn't mean it's for everyone. I credit it with aiding a great deal in combination with the other life changes I've made, though.

I wish you the best. You're on the right track. Keep putting one foot in front of the other, even when it's tough. You will get to where you want to be.
posted by trunk muffins at 1:38 PM on June 6, 2009 [4 favorites]

Try volunteering with a local organization. This can help serve to show you are well and able to commit to something. If too many people unsettle you, go walk dogs at an animal shelter or even do something like reading to children or making food at a soup kitchen. After a bit of time doing this regularly, maybe a supervisor can sign off on a reference for you.
posted by cmgonzalez at 2:48 PM on June 6, 2009

Can you get a case manager through your health insurance or through subsidized insurance if you don't have private health coverage? Case managers can do some of this navigation for you and connect you with some resources. Some people think we're a pain in the ass and others find the help to be a good kick start. Feel free to MeMail me if you have any case management questions. Vocational rehabilitation services or career counseling also might help. Despite mental illness you still have stuff you're more into than not and with some guidance I am sure you can find a job you dig which accommodates your mental health concerns.
posted by ShadePlant at 6:33 PM on June 6, 2009

NAMI is great. Also look for an Independent Living Center in your area - they provide all kinds of support for people with all types of disabilties and they usually know who can help if they can't.

Also, you don't say if you are getting professional help. If not, follow up through your health insurance. You might need to write out a script to help you make the call. Better yet if you have a family member or close friend that can be your support - someone to listen to you, help you make plans and even keep you company while do some of the harder steps.
posted by metahawk at 7:30 PM on June 6, 2009

Also, second volunteering. It is usually a part time schedule, which can help ease you back into a regular schedule and you get the chance to do something that you are good at and that makes a difference. You will want to think about your skills and also what setting will make you the most comfortable and, of course, what project you feel is worth doing. A good place to look is
posted by metahawk at 7:36 PM on June 6, 2009

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