I’m getting a little tired.

Maybe I should be more understanding of health care professionals who make assumptions about my abilities and source of income because I am a person living with a mental illness. After all, according to the Mood Disorders Society of Canada’s booklet, Quick Facts: Mental Illness & Addiction in Canada, 70-90 per cent of people with serious mental illness are unemployed.

Still, my patience is wearing thin.

People living with mental illness are unemployed at such a high rate for a multitude of reasons. Some of them are related to symptoms of illness, side effect of medication, interruptions in career or studies due to illness; others may be attributed to the negative stereotypes that employers may have of people living with a mental illness, such as that we lack motivation, are difficult to accommodate and incapable of working. So maybe it’s completely reasonable for my doctor to be shocked that I engage in paid employment.

The last time I visited my GP, to whom I had mentioned I did part-time work for a business with offices next door to her, she asked me, “You work for them?”

Yes, I answered.

Then, in a disbelieving tone, she asked, “They pay you?”

 Sigh. Yes.

My previous GP and I had a similar conversation. I can’t remember exactly how it went, but at some point he asked, in a kindly voice, “You’re not a very hard worker, are you?”

 I was taken aback but not entirely surprised.

 “I work as hard as anyone with an office job,” I answered.

The implication he could have drawn from this statement is that, I work as hard as he does. But I didn’t even mean to make that point - I simply wanted him to realize that while I am a person living with mental illness, I am also a person who thinks it’s important, and who has the ability, to work for a living.

These two doctors are good, well-meaning people. They are educated and intelligent. But it’s revealing that having these qualities does not preclude them from making assumptions based on common stereotypes about who people living with mental illness are and what we can do.  They may be doctors, at the top of the social, educational and vocational pecking order - but they often have the same prejudices as so many others when it comes to people living with mental illness.

I feel it’s part of my job as a compassionate human being to try to be non-defensive about such assumptions and to educate rather than condemn people who make them. We all, after all, cling to some stereotypes… including, often, the people who are harmed by them.  I can’t blame my doctors for being surprised that I’m a person with skills that are in demand, since at some point in my life, I didn’t think I would ever be such as person either.

I do feel, however, that I have a responsibility to counter stereotypes about people with mental illness by gentle prodding, and by trying to be an example of the person I want to be - a person who has struggled certainly but who is making a good life, and a reasonable living, for herself.

Some may despair about ever being able to open minds about mental illness, if even the most highly educated among us have closed theirs.  But I have hope for these doctors yet.  They have proven ability to learn new tricks, and I am committed to their continuing education. Even if it bores me to tears to explain yet again that yes, I do have a job, a work ethic, and my pride.

But I’m working on that, too.  

About Anna Quon.

Anna is an accomplished freelance/creative writer and writing workshop facilitator. She lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.  She is passionate about many things, especially writing. It is through her writing, and her volunteer work with community organizations, that Anna honours the lives of people who, like her, are living with mental illness.

In 2008, Anna received the Inspiring Lives Award from the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia. In 2009, Anna published her first novel titled Migration Songs which was shortlisted for the Dartmouth Book Award.

Visit Anna's website.