[Online Exclusive] The Elephant in the Career Centre: Mental Health and Job Search
By Heather Powell
We have all been there at one time, had a client who wouldn’t engage in your sessions. They sure can convince you, when they are sitting there in your office, that they are motivated to work on their job search. But then, they don’t show up for your next appointment, or, if they do, they come with nothing accomplished in their job search. They might refuse to attend workshops and if they do, they will try to cause a scene. They may even act out in your agency, raising their voice about the lack of services they are receiving from the “government”.
Then you say it, maybe in the lunch room with some co-workers or under your breath as the client leaves, “He’s crazy”, “What a wacko!” or “He’s nuts! I wish he would get some help”. The words escape your mouth, and then you go back to your files and preparing your case notes about your most recent interaction with the “crazy one”.
Without realizing it, you have just added to the stigma facing individuals who are living with a mental illness. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), one in five Canadians will experience some sort of mental illness in their life, with Aboriginals, seniors, youth and women being at an even higher risk. As employment practitioners, we might assume that a client who is dealing with a mental illness might not want an employer to know because they are in fear of being judged. How would they feel if they knew they were being judged by their employment counsellor?
Of course we not are judging them! We are just blowing off some steam, getting the frustration out before we see our next client. We say in exhaustion, “I am only human after all!” Well, we are not just human; we could be an ally of the client or one of their many enemies.
One of the most important things we can do as career practitioners is to keep track of our own bias and beliefs. Do they affect the way we view different clients? Do we have a pre-conceived notion of how that client will behave and what we can expect from them? These are important things to keep track of, so we can ensure that our biases or beliefs do not dictate the way we interact with our clients.
If you have ever used terms such as “crazy” or “wacko”, to describe a client, it is important to review what those terms mean. If he is crazy, does it mean that he is unemployable? If he is a wacko, does it mean that he could act out at any time and cannot function like a “normal” person? Or, is it different than someone having diabetes, cancer, high cholesterol, deafness or limited mobility? They need support from their employment practitioner. Support can be provided in a non-judgemental environment and referrals to supportive counselling and mental health services as needed. Is it easy for us to assume that there is something wrong with the client because they are not following our plan, but it could be that we are failing to provide a supportive environment for the client to express to us what additional factors are affecting their job search.
Once we have reviewed our own biases, the next step is to understand what a supportive environment looks like. I believe that a supportive environment for clients would be where they are not judged by their counsellors with words or actions. Not using terms like crazy to describe the client and asking the client probing questions such as, “Are there other factors in your life right now that are making it difficult for you to look for work?” Let the client talk to you about what factors they are facing in their job search. Once the client knows that they are not going to be judged, perhaps they will be more likely to express what is happening in their life and what barriers they are facing in their job search activities. If there is a mental health concern, the employment practitioner can make a referral to a service provider that can provide the assistance that the client requires.
If a client discloses to you that they are facing a mental illness, it is important that you don’t label them by the illness. An excellent website by the University of Washington School of Social Work discusses the importance of using “people first language”, i.e. putting the person before the mental illness, for example instead of “John is depressed”, you would say “John who has depression”. It is also important to avoid language that can make the client sound like a victim to their mental illness. John is afflicted by depression, could indicate that depression is taking over John’s life. Statements such as these are only focusing on the illness, not on the person.
Not all clients who are difficult have a mental health illness. But with an average of one in five individuals facing some type of mental health issue, it is important that career practitioners treat clients with respect and dignity. This can be done by ensuring that career practitioners provide a supportive environment with both their words and their actions.
Heather Powell is a career development professional with over 10 years’ experience in the career development field, with a passion for continuing to develop best practices in career and employment counselling. She currently works as an Employment Advisor at the Centre for Skills Development & Training in Milton, ON.