The Trap of Mental Illness and Disability Benefits: Do You Want To Risk It?

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               A View of Downtown Edmonton From Outside My New Apartment

     Hi, I wanted to talk a little about disability benefits today.  This is a senstive topic for many reasons.  One of the big ones, as I know a good deal of my readers are from the United States, is that people on Welfare or even Social Security Benefits are looked down upon.  The tax burden on Americans is great, plus the cost of health care and this ends up worsening the problem from both ends.  People with mental illnesses are faced with costs that can’t be managed for medications, hospital treatment, doctors, housing and on and on.  The way the American system seems to be set up to work is that each person is responsible for themselves, and when someone has a severe mental illness, this can be just about impossible.  I can recall being in the US and simply knowing a guy who applied for foodstamps and then discussing it with an older gentleman and he literally stopped talking to me after we had travelled together for 3 days.  It seemed a harsh judgement and pretty ignorant, but this is the way many people down there think and there are valid reasons for this attitude.  I feel very fortunate to live in Canada and to have a disability benefit program plus health care and on top of that I get heavily subsidized housing and free fitness and leisure access.  It almost seems like paradise, but it definitely has its drawbacks.  One of them is that if I do go out and get a job, I have to limit my income to less than a minimum wage job or lose my benefits completely.  With the cost of psychiatric medications this would be a staggering blow.  At the present point I’m at I don’t honestly know if I could hold down a full-time job for any length of time, but I also don’t want to live the rest of my life with no improvements in my standard of living.

Some 27 years ago I found myself in a homeless shelter, mentally ill and penniless due to prolonged hospital admissions.  There were very few options left for me and so I made an application to join the military.  This would have provided me health benefits, an income, and a purpose in my life.  My application process was interrupted by a fight with my dad that sent me to the shelter, and I decided that since I was working towards something that I could do something I thought was unthinkable-I would apply for welfare benefits.  I will never forget the words of the social worker when I applied, as she looked up from the forms she was filling out for me, “Don’t get caught in the trap.”  I think she meant more along the lines of the trap of drug abuse or alcoholism and circle of poverty.  But whatever she meant, due to my mental illness, I was never able to join the military, and I later failed a concerted attempt to complete commercial pilot school, and was unable to hold down a full-time job.  For me the trap wasn’t in getting money for nothing, it was in that every time I tried to do something, either I was told I was ineligible as a person with a mental illness, or that I would try and do a job set before me and the incredible pressure of working up to acceptable standards was simply too much.  I was caught in a trap, and in some ways I still am.

Things are improving in my life though, I have found a part-time job that I am good at and that I enjoy.  I give talks to students about mental illness for the Schizophrenia Society, and I have written a number of books.  The books give me little income, but together I manage to put food on the table.  One thing I often think about is that despite that numerous times I went over the brink into madness, I now have a good life with stable housing and income and something to do, but I have a lot of regret that I have no life partner.  This is another trap that people with mental illnesses have to be aware of, the isolation factor, and it has a lot to do with receiving benefits.  If you don’t have to force yourself to get up and get out and look for work, you may just sit inside and watch TV and never care if you have friends or a significant other, and years will fly past and a person will have nothing but regrets.  One of the reasons that people end up isolated like this besides recieving benefits is that there is a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness.  One thing with me is that I used to try and hide the fact that I have a diagnosed illness, but now I am very forward about it.  So many people, when you stop trying to hide things, will tell you they suffer, they have a family member or close friend that suffers.

Anyhow, a lot of that is beside the point I was trying to make.  How do you avoid the trap that going on benefits causes?  You may not be able to, but you can make your life as full as possible.  I always like to say that the first thing you need to do with a mentally ill person is get them proper treatment, proper medications.  Then you need to take some therapy that will help you understand yourself.  After that, a life skills course or Wellness Recovery Action Plan course can help a great deal.  From there, even if it just means taking one course, get some school under your belt.  While you are doing this, find ways to keep fit and healthy, in what you do with your body and what you put in it.  Quit smoking if you smoke.  Then, try and find work, even part-time.  Spend as little as possible, and save, and keep taking your medications, work on your mental health on an ongoing basis, and before you know it, you may forget you ever were sick.  It isn’t an easy process, and it isn’t a simple one, but it is one that is worthwhile.  I like to keep telling people that you need to have goals and direction, specific ones.  “I want a bachelor’s degree in six years.” would be an excellent one.  “I want to be stabilized and back working in two years, earning enough to drive a car and rent my own apartment.” is another good one.  Once you have goals, you have a direction to move in, and if you are having a hard time, you can end up feeling so much better about yourself from just working a little bit each day towards your goal.  Take care Dear Readers!

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One comment

  1. Good read… My brother has schizophrenia. The measly benefits he gets is such a trap but it pays for his expensive medications. Here in the US if he was to work or have a job he would loose his benefits and his medications would no longer be paid for. He would not be able to afford them with a low skill level job. The mentally ill in the United States pretty much get fucked and stuck unable to take even the simple pride of working. How the mentally ill and handicapped are treated in this country sometimes makes me ashamed to be an American.

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