With a Diagnosis of Schizophrenia, Our Prospects are Tough

by Jack Bragen

At 18, I was released from the hospital following a horrible psychotic episode for which I had been jailed and put in several psych wards. When finally released, I was back to some semblance of normality.

When I met with outpatient psychiatrists, they advised me that I should get a job doing the same kind of thing I’d done before I’d had the psychotic episode. It was never suggested that I try to go to college or do any kind of job that entailed brains. Although their intentions were good, their advice was wrong. 

The night cleanup jobs were part of what caused me to become ill. Psychiatrists believed otherwise and felt it was just a brain disorder. A few years later it became apparent that nighttime cleanup jobs were bad for me. I went into electronic repair, and this was significantly better for my mental health. 

When I was in my late teens and twenties, I was a great worker. I held several challenging positions that many people would not be able to do. I repaired home electronics and for a short time I was employed in photocopier repair. On the other hand, some of the jobs that I got were too difficult, and in some of those jobs, I was seen as “thin-skinned.” If I had been successful in one of more of these “too difficult” jobs, it would have changed the course of my life for the better. 

In losing some of the jobs, outside factors were substantially at cause. Mental health complications had caught up with me. Not just the illness itself, but the circumstances that accompany being diagnosed as mentally ill. Working while mentally ill and medicated is a significant achievement by itself. Doing this is the exception and not the rule. A large part of the difficulty is that of the antipsychotics, which work to reduce psychosis because they suppress brain activity. 

But at a job, normally your brain needs to function for you to perform the tasks of the job. I learned to have an overdeveloped drive where I could often push past the effects of the medication and perform at a job. That worked to a limited extent, but I couldn’t handle any of the really demanding jobs.

Ultimately, in my mid-twenties, circumstances forced me to apply for Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income. The examining psychiatrist said to me, “If you’re on medication, you are disabled.” This is a very weighty thing to say, especially when a psychiatrist determining whether I was disabled says it. 

FYI: Plan to Achieve Self-Support, or PASS, is a longstanding program in the Social Security Administration that can offset the costs of a vocational goal. This can amount to extra money intended to start a small business or pay tuition. It is worth looking into if you feel partway or fully prepared to work, and if you need a boost. 

Even if you’re diagnosed with schizophrenia, it doesn’t always mean that you can’t work. People’s perceptions could influence you to believe you can’t. You should not accept that. Not unless the idea of working seems impossible to you. This is where you might trust your gut feelings about your own capabilities and limitations. 

If you have schizophrenia, it is harder to obtain and maintain housing. If you are renting on a subsidy from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, you must completely reject the notion of letting people stay with you in your unit. It leads to disaster. Before you rent, be certain you can pay for the unit, and the cost of utilities, food, communications, and transportation. Otherwise, it will be impossible. 

Renting a room with cohabitants in a house or apartment might seem like a good route to housing, and maybe sometimes it is. But then you are dealing with the complications of cohabitants, people who might not be able to tolerate living with a disabled person. Others in the house or condo could be professionally employed. For young adults with full-time employment, it is a hard sell to get them to let in a disabled person.  

Discrimination and ableism is a real factor that can make it harder to rent a room. If you follow up on a Craigslist ad and go to an interview, with a disability you have less of a chance of being allowed into a household of people who are renting the rooms. The cohabitants could decide they think you aren’t ready because of outward appearances that imply you are mentally ill and medicated. But going off medication won’t fix that problem. If you’re concerned about discrimination, quitting medication is not a route you can take. 

Being mentally ill and medicated affects everything. These problems affect earning money, being housed, how we are treated by the criminal justice system and much more. It is not an easy existence, and it takes a very brave and strong person to be able to live this way. 

If you find that it is too difficult to integrate you may need to look for public benefits that exist for maintaining people with disabilities. These benefits exist because those who have planned our society and decided how everything will work were aware that we couldn’t leave behind the disabled people, at least not completely and not all of us. 

And yet there are a lot of catches when using the supposed safety net. For example, the government always wants documentation. There are always forms to fill out. There are always questions to answer. The government is an information-powered machine. 

The government doesn’t want to see cash in the hands of mentally ill people. That policy seems to be a part of keeping us restricted through any methods available. 

It’s easy to say, “Social Security has rules that make it easier to work,” but that’s an outright lie. Social Security keeps you stuck, and it keeps you controlled.

The government will want to interview you, verify everything, examine you and make you declare that you are not lying to them. If I could possibly get by without the government, I would.  

A schizophrenic diagnosis is not a thing to envy. It makes all aspects of life much harder. It implies a lot, and it entails a curtailment of our rights. A person who has a major mental health disorder, on an unspoken or maybe even an overt level, is not in the same category as a person considered normal. The diagnosis is quite a barrier, but the illness itself along with the medication comprise more of a barrier than the label. The label is just a name. But the illness is a medical condition, and it won’t go away no matter how you might want to reframe it. 

And our society is far too intolerant. The intolerance has shown itself to me much worse in recent years than it was 30 years ago. We’ve gone backwards. 

It is not a free lunch. If you need to collect disability to survive because you can’t work, you should collect disability. But it doesn’t lead to a comfortable lifestyle. Those who can and do work at a job are much better off. In a job, you’ll have enough money to live on, or so one hopes. Additionally, you won’t be dependent on the government for your housing and medical care. There are many, many reasons why keeping a job is better than collecting disability. And people are well aware of that. That’s why collecting disability for many people is a last resort.

Jack Bragen lives and writes in Martinez, California.