General News — 11 August 2015

A Wellington man who is struggling to get a job believes he is being discriminated against because of his mental illness.

Richard Stephens suffers from bipolar disorder and chronic anxiety. He has not had a full-time job since 2011.

Stephens believes he is one of hundreds of people who are disadvantaged because of a mental illness.

According to Ministry of Health figures, one in five New Zealanders have a mood disorder – depression or bipolar disorder – at some point in their lives.

A new survey, conducted by the Health Promotion Agency, shows that while employers have more understanding of mental illnesses, they are less likely to hire someone if they had a mental illness.

Almost one-third (29 per cent) of respondents agreed with the decision to hire a less experienced candidate who had no experience of mental illness, rather than someone who had more experience but had battled a mental illness.

Stephens felt there were two major barriers stopping him from securing a job.

“Unfortunately, the first one is my mental health.

“A lot of the jobs ask if you have or have you ever had any illnesses that might affect your ability to work, and there is a lot of debate in the mental health community about whether to disclose that or not.’

“The other is medication. They think if you are on medication you are going to be a zombie and not be able to do the job.”

He vividly recalled one job interview, which he felt was a prime example: “It was an hour long and we spent the whole time talking about my mental illness. I got a phone call shortly after to say I wouldn’t fit in the office environment.”

Stephens has two degrees, is in the process of getting another, and has done policy work at government level. But he feels all that does not matter.

“I really am stuck between a rock and a hard place. I’m constantly job-hunting and, despite a large number of applications, I still haven’t got a job.

“I know people who have given up job-hunting, but I’m just waiting for that chance.”

New Zealand Mental Health Foundation chief executive Judi Clements said: “We know that there are issues about employers feeling reluctant to employ people [with mental illnesses] sometimes because they feel like they are taking too much of a risk.

“Often they don’t understand what the mental health diagnosis is, or how someone is going to behave, so by default they don’t take the risk.”

Some people who were already employed feared they would get fired if they disclosed they had been diagnosed with a mental illness.

“They don’t know if they are going to be discriminated against, and they don’t know the reaction they are going to get, so they just don’t disclose it.”

Louise Windleborn, of Hutt Valley-based Oasis Network, said she employed people who had battled with mental illness, as the organisation needed people who had “lived experiences”.

It was sad to see employers choosing not to employ people who had had a mental illness, she said.

“It should be about ability to do the role, rather than mental illness … there is an awful lot of stigma about what it [mental illness] means.

“In my experience of interviewing people, there is still quite a bit of shame around it and people are treated differently because of their mental illness.”

This article first appeared on ‘Business Day’ on 10 August 2015.


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