Helping a spouse overcome mental illness and re-enter the workforce
Reprinted from "Workplace: Transitions" issue of Visions Journal, 2016, 11 (3), pp. 11-13
For various reasons, my husband Ben* was unable to stay employed for an extended period of time. Our family often made do with little income because Ben would not make it past his employment probationary period. Shoestring budgets and the prospect of no vacations loomed over our household for several years. There were fewer opportunities for Ben in our hometown as time went on, so we decided to move to BC to seek more opportunities in his field. We rented an apartment in Greater Vancouver and began to look for jobs. Within a few months, I secured a position with a local restaurant. But before I had the opportunity to begin, my husband was admitted to the hospital.
For a couple of weeks leading up to his hospitalization, Ben had been anxious and hyper-vigilant. He was sure our apartment was bugged and that the government had set other traps to monitor our movement and conversations. Initially, I dismissed these bizarre thoughts. I told myself that Ben was just tired and overwhelmed at the prospect of having to look after our infant daughter while I went to work. But I soothed myself: this was just going to be a temporary arrangement until Ben was able to secure full-time employment. Once that happened, our daughter would be in day care and Ben's anxieties would fade.
Then, late one night before my new job was to begin, I woke up around 2:00 am to check on our daughter. I discovered that Ben had left our apartment. I thought at first that he may have gone outside for a walk but a quick check revealed he hadn’t taken his keys and the front door was still locked. I walked towards the window and looked out. With growing horror I realized that Ben had exited our second-floor apartment by jumping from our bedroom window.
Distraught, I immediately called the police. I was told a missing person report could not be filed until 24 hours had passed. They asked me to call back later to provide an update. Somehow, I managed to find the courage and composure to phone family members. I prayed for several hours until dawn. I sat by the window in the living room all day, praying and hoping that Ben was alright.
At around 4:00 that afternoon, I got a phone call from Ben. He told me that he was downtown and that I should not worry. I calmly asked him to catch a bus and come home. I then called the police. The police were so supportive. In fact, one of the constables gave me his direct phone number so that I could alert him when Ben arrived back at the apartment. It took Ben an hour to get home. The police arrived about 10 minutes later. The officers asked him a few questions, and it was evident from Ben's answers that he was paranoid and delusional about a number of things. He spoke again about government conspiracies. One of the officers asked him if he would be willing to go the hospital, and he said he would be.
During Ben's stay at the hospital, I met some hard-working and empathic professionals who helped me to understand schizophrenia and the treatment options available. When I first heard Ben's diagnosis, I was devastated. I knew nothing about the condition, and I worried about the stigma of having a family member with a mental illness. I also worried about how I would look after him. Later, I realized there was relief in finally knowing why he couldn't remain employed. I began to look ahead to the next steps in his treatment and his eventual discharge from the hospital.
In hindsight, I can now recognize in Ben's employment history signs of what was to come. He had always been guarded when he worked for the government. He had left his last two government jobs abruptly, feeling that he would be asked to carry out assignments that were "unsafe." His last manager was so disappointed to see him go that he phoned him and asked him to rescind his letter of resignation because he was so hard-working and highly qualified. I now also recognize the patterns of delusional thinking that would often lead to his resignation within four to five months of being hired.
During the three weeks that Ben stayed in the hospital, he was heavily sedated. One of his psychiatrists explained that he would eventually be placed on a dose that would work for him. When Ben was discharged, he was referred to a community psychiatrist, who turned out to be one of the kind physicians we had met on Ben's admission to the hospital.
During Ben's hospitalization, a non-government employer contacted him about a possible position. I explained that Ben would contact them once he was discharged from the hospital. The employer did not ask about the nature of Ben's hospitalization.
Three weeks after he was discharged, Ben had a follow-up meeting with his psychiatrist. I was invited to this meeting as well. During the course of the meeting, I had an opportunity to ask about his ability to return to work. His doctor explained that employment was an important part of his recovery and he supported Ben's interest in returning to work. He believed that Ben could find employment in his field, but he would need to take his medication in order to avoid a relapse. I agreed and felt hopeful after the meeting, knowing that Ben would get support from the psychiatrist.
Ben called the employer who had contacted him while he was in the hospital. The employer asked him to come in for an initial interview and then a second interview. Ben was hired following the second interview. Ben adhered to his medication regimen, and kept all his appointments with his psychiatrist. He never felt the need to disclose his illness to his employer or co-workers because he did not have any side effects from the medication. He did not have any anxiety or other ailments often associated with schizophrenia. On his return to work, he had told me that he wanted to be open about his illness only if it was affecting his ability to work. He worked with this employer for 10 years before deciding that he needed a change and applying to another company. He continues to see his psychiatrist for follow-up and has stayed on his medications. He has not been in the hospital since that initial stay.
As Ben settled into his first job after his diagnosis, I decided that I wanted to pursue work for a non-profit agency that provides psychosocial rehabilitation to people recovering from mental illness. Although I was a generalist, I gravitated towards working with clients to find employment. I quickly learned that the benefits of employment to recovery are significant!
About the author
Laura is a Vocational Counsellor working for a health authority in BC. She has a bachelor's degree and has been providing vocational services to individuals with mental health and substance use issues for over 10 years. She wanted to share her story so that she could inspire other families to support their loved ones with their recovery and employment goals