Working alongside those in receipt of social assistance, I am always in close proximity with people who go about their days with varying degrees of mental health. Some mask problems well, some openly share with whoever is in earshot, and some are actively engaged getting the help they need to get on with life.
What strikes me often is not only the high number of people who are struggling with their mental health, but that many still see themselves as alone. Sometimes I’m surrounded by 20 people for a few weeks at a time and a person will be entirely unaware that there are 7 other people in that single group who have disclosed to me that they have the same condition such as anxiety or depression.
If we all had visible labels stating our issues, it would be quite revealing; not always good or always bad, but quite startling to see what you’re dealing with is shared with someone else. There are so many people who seem to be in good mental health; they smile, go about their tasks alone and seem okay. However, they’ve really just made a choice to deal with their mental health issue in the best way for them that they know of. Others of course will tell anyone and everyone which is how they personally go about their day.
Now don’t think please that mental health problems like anxiety and depression are linked to those on social assistance exclusively. There are many in receipt of social assistance who don’t have anxiety and depression or any other mental health diagnosis. For most, receiving financial assistance isn’t a badge of honour but rather an embarrassment; something to hide at social gatherings etc. While a hit to self-esteem and confidence, certainly not clinical depression or anxiety.
Having said this, I see that the longer a person remains on social assistance, the more likely they will experience mental health challenges. Many people report they put off applying for social assistance help for as long as possible. Why? They say that to do so was an admission that they’d hit rock bottom. Going to apply and handing over all the necessary documents like ID, rental leases, bank statements etc. was a real eye-opener and a moment of shame. Quite often they say, “I never thought I’d end up here. I’m glad it’s available mind, but it’s embarrassing. I can’t wait to get off.”
It’s well-known that mental illness isn’t exclusively reserved for the poor. There are many people with mental health concerns who seemingly have it all. Professional athletes, heads of organizations, community leaders, doctors, lawyers, teachers – maybe you and maybe me for all you know. I don’t mean short-term moments of sadness and regret. I mean full-blown depression and anxiety.
In Canada I’m glad to say that mental health awareness programs are flourishing and a growing publicly acceptance. Gone in large part are the days where families hid the mental health concerns one of their members had; where if you told people you were struggling with your mental health you were seen as weak, needed to be in an institution and a high risk; certainly not capable of being productive. Thank goodness.
No, these days if and when you share that you’re experiencing anxiety or depression most educated people will offer support. Getting help with daily living is a sign of strength not weakness, and the most enlightened know that people with mental health challenges can be highly productive in a working society. Sometimes medication or therapy helps, sometimes it’s a small change in the workplace environment or an accommodation to the workload for a time.
I do know from first-hand experience that there appears to be an association between being in receipt of assistance for a prolonged period and emerging mental health issues for many. That’s understandable I think; too much idle time, experiencing rejection too often from employers, too much isolation from others socially, removed from being productive in a workplace, Thoughts such as, “What’s wrong with me?”, “Where did things go wrong?”, “When is it going to turn around?” and “I never imagined in a million years I’d be in this situation. This isn’t me!” surface with growing regularity.
The thing is, those of us in good mental health need be mindful to be kind and supportive to those experiencing mental health challenges.; and because it’s invisible, it’s important to bring kindness to everyone we interact with. Not only could we find we are not immune to experiencing these ourselves, but there’s a human cost to be paid. Good people can feel devalued, potential can be overlooked, opportunities to gain an appreciative and highly-skilled employee might go missed.
Give someone in receipt of social assistance and dealing as best they can with a mental health challenge a job and you’ll see a huge change. Self-esteem picks up, confidence rises, their investment in being successful and their gratitude for the hope you’ve given them will shine. Employment isn’t the only answer of course but it’s definitely going to improve someone’s self-perception and outlook.
If you’re an employer, you can help by curbing prejudices against social assistance recipients, supporting those with mental health issues, and treating those that apply with respect and care by at the very least acknowledging your applicants. Hiring and supporting social assistance recipients with mental health issues is a good business decision too. .