For many of us who suffer from a mental illness, one of the most difficult things to do is to return to work, or if you feel you are unable or not ready to get a paid job, finding a volunteer job. One of my first volunteer jobs was extremely rewarding, I worked in an extended care hospital for veterans. The funny thing was that I found out about this place when I was working a paid job. I was with a security outfit that was responsible for patrolling this hospital, and once my supervisor took me along on one of his nightly patrols and I felt really touched by the concept that these were men who sacrificed such a great deal to keep Canada and other countries free. I was looking for a volunteer job because my pastor’s wife had suggested that if youth in my church have free time, there are so many places that they could ‘shine their light’ so to speak. I started out volunteering with the chaplain of the hospital, a man from Holland who had been liberated at the end of World War Two by Canadian troops, who he described as true gentlemen. I would try and find more people to come to his bible study, I would wheel the patients around, and after a while the Chaplain, who we knew as ‘holy Harry’ assigned me some men to visit on a regular basis. It took a lot out of me sometimes to spend time with these men in their last days of their lives, but it felt so incredibly rewarding. I had even for a short time considered working there as a practical nursing attendant.
One of my other volunteer jobs was absolutely incredible. I volunteered for a children’s summer camp, funny enough, something that I once believed I would never be suitable for because of my tough-guy image in Air Cadets and other organizations I was with, but when the director of the camp stood up at a church gathering and asked for volunteers, I thought it would be the perfect vacation. I personally felt a little weak in my abilities and perhaps even my faith (I was still a cigarette smoker at the time) and so when I was assigned a cabin with four or five boys they had another counsellor with me and we would share our duties. I loved working with the kids, but I also loved the fact that the food was great, I met some really nice young women, there was a pool, horses and an archery range there, and on and on. I had no money, I was paid no money, but I had a better time than most of the vacations I took when I had plenty.
I think my biggest concern at the time of the kids camp was that people would find out I had a mental illness. I even hid my medications from them and took them in secret. What scares me is that sometimes I think to some people it may be obvious that I have a mental illness, especially at that time because my bipolar symptoms weren’t very well controlled. I do remember having times when I was moody and clashing with one or two other camp volunteers. But aside from all that it was perhaps one of the most fun times I had in all of my early adult years (20-30)
One of the reasons it is difficult to get a job soon after leaving a hospital, or even years after, is that a person’s life skills and employment skills atrophy from lack of use. I know that if I spend too many days in my apartment not contacting the outside world, I will become shy and nervous all over again. There are two things that I feel most help with my social anxiety, one is prozac (but no, I am not recommending it, it just works well for me, every person is different) and challenging myself to do more things that require a person to feel comfortable around others. The Schizophrenia Society has been great in helping me push my limits because it is very common that I will speak to a class or organization, large or small, and I have become so comfortable with public speaking that I greatly enjoy it. For anyone who feels they could use a similar confidence boost, try looking up an organization that hires or accepts volunteers that is like the schizophrenia society in that they give presentations to increase awareness and decrease the stigma of mental illness. If these aren’t available, an excellent thing to try that will benefit you for the rest of your life is to check out Toastmasters. They help people learn public speaking and leadership skills. I took their course at 15 and it has benefitted me so many times over.
When you are in a hospital or psychiatric ward for an extended period of time, there are ways that you can keep up your Life and employment skills. There will be a time when you don’t feel up to it, but push yourself, and try to get into group therapy, or even one on one therapy with a psychologist, and look into occupational therapy that is offered. In the institution I was in, there were a lot of choices of occupational therapy. You could work in a wood shop building things for yourself or for Charity, you could work in a recycling shop like I did once where you take apart old electrical meters so the parts can be recycled. Occupational Therapy covers a broad range of things, it can even include (as it did for the seniors in the extended care hospital I mentioned) simply reading the newspaper and discussing it. I would recommend trying to read the newspaper (once you feel up to it) every day to keep in gear with the outside world, even if all it benefits you is by giving you a reason to know what date it is (which used to be one of the first questions you were asked for a competency test by a psychiatrist). It can also be very useful to try and get computer time if possible. Newspapers and computers have so much information about things you may need to buy when you leave the hospital (say like a new dresser) they also have listings for things such as jobs, apartments, even movies and other events.
The other side of keeping your Life and Employment skills up is to participate in sports as much as you can. I almost never get a chance to play tennis, but a few years ago I got to play all I wanted and it kept me feeling better, thinking better, and having a more positive outlook. Sports can do so much, and it isn’t such a bad idea to connect with a YMCA/YWCA or city facility where you can swim or play drop-in badminton or just about anything that keeps you moving and fit. Even desk jobs require a certain level of fitness to be bearable.
One thing I do know is that I am a very lucky person. I work 2-5 hours a week and my disability benefits allow me to keep that much without being deducted. Here is another reason why you may want to consider volunteering. In my case, as part of my benefits, I not only get a swim pass worth about $400 a year, I also get a bus pass at 1/3 the regular price, plus it pays my dental, medical and prescription expenses. Not everyone will have these expenses, but I am sure that anyone who experiences mental illness knows that medications can become extremely expensive. I’m in a situation where I would just about have to have a full-time job that doubles what I get now in disability benefits to maintain the same income as I get now when you consider I will have to pay for my medicine. That is also just half the story because I would also lose my apartment because it is a subsidized place that is geared to income, and if I had a full time job instead of working part-time and getting disability, my rent would triple. The largest issue? I really don’t think I could handle a full-time job for very long. And so I work as much as I can, and try to live simply and continue to write and hope that one day I will get a letter from a publisher that isn’t rejection letter number 3,567.
As a person who works hard but is only partly employed, I end up having a lot of time on my hands, and this can be a lethal thing for people with mental health issues. Loneliness can sneak its way into a person’s life, people with mental illnesses tend to isolate and sometimes either stop their medication or simply become extremely depressed. This leads to something that I find so awful it is almost hard to write about it. A person who is ill, who, if properly cared for could live a great life, becomes so depressed and lonely because their life lacks purpose, that going to the hospital seems like a better option than staying in their home. Not only this happens, but sometimes these people who want to go back in the hospital find that the hospital will only admit them if they make a serious attempt to take their own lives, and sadly a lot of people either attempt or die by suicide. This is something that is kind of close to my heart because one of my duties with the Schizophrenia Society has been to call people who need support, most often people isolated by their illness. These are wonderful people, kind, intelligent and capable people who could do so much, but they seem to have been forgotten by just about every level of society.
Well, dear readers, that blog went on a little longer than I expected, and I didn’t cover all the points I wanted to cover. As usual, if you would like me to speak about a topic you are interested in, please do email me, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org If you would like to help keep this blog going and support me, please consider heading over to the books page and either emailing me to order a book or use the link to buy a copy on amazon. The two books (of eleven I have in print) are “Through the Withering Storm” and “Inching Back to Sane” and they deal with my experiences suffering from and being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and anxiety. Have a great day!