World Mental Health Day

My name is Nawira. I have a mental health condition. Like you, I want a good job

I was diagnosed with a mental health condition at 17.

I still remember being warded in the child ward at the Institute of Mental Health, where another young patient, much younger than I was, exclaimed that I was "only 17 but already mad".

Deep down, I felt dismay and disappointment, because we young people should have been looking forward to a bright future, but we carried more doubt and fear about our future than hope.

Even back then, I knew that the long road ahead would be paved with many more challenges.

But as an individual with a mental health condition, I still have dreams. I still strive to achieve the goals I set for myself.

Like many young adults, I have plans for further studies and a career. Having lived with a mental health condition for nearly 10 years now, recovery to me has become the ability to thrive and not just survive.

One way to do that is through meaningful employment. The importance and value of employment to those with a mental health condition should not be underestimated. It provides a great sense of purpose and responsibility, while allowing us to remain independent and self-sufficient.

Work also enables us to remain contributing members of society as it presents an opportunity to not just show but to also share our skills and talents. Most importantly, it proves that the individual is more than his or her diagnosis.

Despite having a mental health condition, I can do a job that I have skills for just as well, if not better, than someone without a mental health condition. The condition itself does not define me. It might influence circumstances, but what matters most is the response towards these circumstances, both from myself as an employee and from my employer.

Yet, I have also come face to face with work-related struggles as a person with a diagnosis of mental illness. For me, and many others like myself, it boils down to three main issues - disclosing a mental health condition; finding employment, if not opportunities in a professional capacity; and the lack of support and understanding at work.

  • Disclosure. Many individuals with a mental health condition grapple with disclosure for fear of their job application being rejected, or discrimination at the workplace if employed.
     I started off disclosing my condition only after an interview or a few months into the job so that it would have allowed me ample time and opportunity to demonstrate my strengths, skills and who I am as a person. It also allowed my employer to gain confidence in me and my ability based on the traits and qualities I had demonstrated in the interview or at work, so he can see me beyond my condition and recognise my potential to contribute to the organisation.
     The fact that I am still able to get the job done well, even with a mental health condition, helps clear preconceived notions an employer might have of a person with a mental health condition, and is a step forward in reducing workplace stigma.
     But more recently, I took the step of disclosing my mental health condition at an earlier stage - I declared my condition on the job application form. This was to make things easier during times when I had to go for my regular appointments with my psychiatrist and psychologist. Because I had declared it upfront, I was given the chance to discuss my condition during the interview. I was later offered the post with a competitive salary.
     However, I am aware that, unfortunately, many other organisations and companies might not be as receptive to hiring people with mental health conditions.
     It takes some courage to declare one's condition upfront; and while I appreciate having open conversations before employment, I also brace myself for rejection from the disclosure. At the same time, I figure that declaring my condition upfront and observing the prospective employer's response also lets me filter out environments I would not flourish in.
  • Opportunities. Like most other people, those with mental health conditions have the ambition of finding professional work, and to have the opportunity to fulfil their true potential.
     But we are often told that beggars cannot be choosers. The lack of employment opportunities for people with mental health conditions, especially in their fields of interest, means that we often have to settle for low pay or jobs that do not recognise our potential and skills.
     I often wonder: If other nations can have professionals who are able to be open about their mental health struggles, why can't we? I think that until we are able to do that for mental health, we still have a long way to go.
  • Support at the workplace. For those of us who manage to secure employment, we might face a system where there is little or no support for individuals with a health condition (physical or mental) to allow them to perform well and produce quality work.
     Often, we are given less responsibility, or there is much hand-holding, even when we are capable of performing and want to do more. Each individual is different, with or without a mental health condition. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach.
     We might have a certain diagnosis but we present the illness in such varied ways. What might work for one, might not work for another. It pays to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of an employee and to strive to see the person behind the label.
     Employees with a mental health condition still have something to contribute. With adequate support at work, we can tap our potential and skills to bring something to the table too.
     While our nation has come a long way in creating a more inclusive society, we can still do more to support people with mental health conditions, at a national or individual level. After all, mental illness does not discriminate, so why should we?

  • Nawira Baig, 25, is a freelance writer. She is also a Community Mental Health Assessment Team (Chat) ambassador and mental health advocate.
  • Chat is a national outreach and mental health check programme under the Institute of Mental Health, which supports individuals aged 16 to 30 with their mental health concerns.
    To find out more, go to https://www.chat.mentalhealth.sg/
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2017, with the headline 'My name is Nawira. I have a mental health condition. Like you, I want a good job'. Print Edition | Subscribe