The Challenges of Job Interviews with a Mental Illness

woman at a job interview
Image by Igor Link from Pixabay

Job interviews are unpleasant at the best of times, and to me have always felt very fake. But throw mental illness into the mix, and they can be a huge obstacle. There are a number of aspects of job interviews that particularly worry me.

Answering unexpected questions

My cognitive symptoms of depression aren’t as bad now as they have been, but my brain is still pretty slow to react to anything unexpected. Even in low-pressure situations, I may be asked a question and I just can’t generate an answer. I may make light of it and brush it off as oh, brain fart, I lost my train of thought.

In a high-pressure interview, my mind would go blank. That would make me anxious, ensuring that my mind stayed blank, and I’d be left staring stupidly at the interviewer.

Having to identify positive examples

I can identify some positive things in my past and present, but put me on the spot, and my mind can only find the negatives. Throw in that my memory isn’t great, and I’d be waiting/begging for the ground to open up and swallow me.

Having to sell myself

I’ve always thought it felt rather fake trying to convince interviewers that you’re amazing and wonderful and all that crap, because it always seems like there are things you’re expected to say and not say. It’s tough even when I do believe that I’m actually pretty wonderful.

Now? I know that I have strengths, but the idea of trying to sell myself in job interviews makes me want to barf. I have to work hard at trying to shift focus to genuine positives, and trying to portray a prettily wrapped fake package of trite expected positives sounds pretty close to impossible.

Interpersonal questions like dealing with conflict

I hate people. I like my fellow bloggers, and I like my patients, but otherwise, I pretty much hate people, in general, these days. That hasn’t always been the case, but the combination of depression and some negative experiences with shitty people have pretty much soured me on humanity. So there’s that.

Then there’s avoidance, the coping mechanism I’ve had to rely on far too often to extricate myself from situations I don’t have the resources available to cope with. So, when faced with the question that’s inevitably asked in job interviews about how I handle conflict, I can hardly say I run as far away as I can as fast as I can to hide out in my cave away from people, who, by the way, I hate.

Can’t talk about being bullied, either, because that’s not considered acceptable. Obviously, I would need to lie. Depression makes me good at lies like “I’m fine” or “I’m okay”, but very bad at crafting (and remembering) more elaborate lies.

Having to answer questions about gaps in my resumé

I quit a job because it was a shit show that was threatening my mental health, and ended up with a substantial resume gap after that. One of my current jobs, the one in mental health, I think I’m going to leave off my resumé entirely. So there are holes, and in my experience, interviewers tend to be nosy buggers; they want those holes filled in, or the application goes straight in the recycle bin.

Except nothing mental health-related is considered an acceptable excuse for resumé holes. So what, more lies that I’d have to pull out of my ass that is getting sorer by the minute?

Managing anxiety

Interviews are anxiety-provoking for anyone.  Anxiety isn’t a huge part of my depression, but, unsurprisingly, it’s amplified in high-stress situations, and my brain runs in circles but doesn’t move forward. So then it’s a matter of figuring out a pre-medicating strategy; enough Ativan and/or Seroquel to tone it down without turning me into a drooling zombie.

Managing triggers without crying or shutting down

There was one interview I did while I was depressed, and I don’t remember if it was something the interviewers said or the way they said it that triggered me, and I started crying. I couldn’t stop, so I just got up and walked out. Not surprisingly I never heard from them again.

Mental illness is hard enough without having to concoct BS stories to appease potential employers who are bursting at the seams with stigma. Even employers who are more progressive are likely to have an easy time coming up with excuses not to hire someone who has a hard time explaining away the effects of their illness on their work history.

Has your illness impacted your search for work?

48 thoughts on “The Challenges of Job Interviews with a Mental Illness”

  1. bpdbloggerwithkids

    Omg. Talk about relevancy and hitting the nail on the head. I needed to read this. Thank you!!!

  2. The hating people…. i cannot go there. I love despite… my daughter, on the other hand, the person who could bring much to the world, as i see you do, is broken too. Broken down by hurtful, inconsiderate idiots. What makes people so ungrateful? So bitter that they would tarnish a heart that cares until it hurts. 💔🤕

  3. I’ve been marking myself ‘disabled’ on applications for S&Gs. Not one reply. I wish I could say I blame them… Honesty is unfortunately not an office policy in the case of interviews. Please don’t stop blogging on this subject. Mental health and the workplace is such a complex issue and can be a source of shame for (forgive me) people like us. Your words help so much and I don’t see this addressed very often.

  4. I had never really thought of this, but you’re so right. Especially about trying to think of positive examples, it’s so hard when your default is to just think everything you’ve ever done is shit. I always make sure to have stuff written down and try to anticipate as many types of question as I can, but it’s so difficult. I never really stopped to consider how my mental health must affect my performance in situations like that!

    1. I think writing stuff down is a good way to go. I always worry that it’ll sound kind of unnatural and rehearsed, but better that than unrehearsed and stupid.

  5. To answer your question: most definitely, like I usually say we are the best actors because we need to be in order to survive in society. So yes, I went through my share of BS. And now I have to deal with being old even though I am only 53. I can’t find a job which is killing us.

  6. aguycalledbloke

    What an excellent post Ashley 🙂

    I have recently found dreadful stigma associated with my Asperger’s. I have been advised to not tell anyone as in employers until after l am offered a job, but get stressed at having to technically lie. I interview well, but l come across as eccentric, that is who l am. If l wish to avoid that, then l must mask up, and if l do that then my anxiety rises, the stress creeps in and we have problems.

    There is simply way too much stigma attached to more than just one issue. I feel employers have got to wake up, we don’t live in a perfect world, none of us do and that includes them, but they approach the Interview like it has stakes in perfection.

    If l am not facing problems with now having to lie about my asperger’s, l face new stigma’s about my age, or how l garnered my experience in life or this, or that.

    I HATE Interviews with a passion because they are NOT real as you have said, they are fixed on a world that doesn’t exist.

    Going to share this Ashley, truly an excellent post, well written

    1. Thanks 🙂 I find the idea of lying and masking up to be really disturbing, and yet that is the expectation. It just seems so farcical that people get hired based on their ability to act like the perfect candidate rather than their ability to actually do their job. I wish I had some hope that this will change eventually, but it’s hard to believe that.

      1. aguycalledbloke

        Absolutely agree, it irks me beyond measure on a constant basis. I can do the jobs l apply for, but l don’t like some of the office politics, l don’t like all the zubb buzz hubbery that goes on with the social level, but if l can do the job does it matter if l am not wanting to be part of the woot woot community? No, it doesn’t.

          1. aguycalledbloke

            I have a situation ongoing now, and l am unbelievably overwhelmed, and getting close to the point of getting really aggressive with people and l am not an aggressive person, but it is just blowing my mind with the rising stress of things.

            I can feel my anxiety levels increasing, have been all day. i get the anxiousness prevent me from taking deep breaths. All l want to do, is the job at hand, but there is this constant pressure to join in the community and that’s not me.

            I keep getting notifications to attend nightly webinars and l am about ‘.’ that close from screaming shut the F up” at them all, but have to keep my head sweet and mouther sweeter!

            Very annoying. Think l hide it well … lol!

            1. Oh my, sounds like enough to drive anybody bonkers. It’s unfortunate that screaming shut the F up isn’t a little more socially acceptable….

            2. aguycalledbloke

              I know, it would upset them, and we live in a society that is too sensitive these days to brutal honesty, but creates stigmas over things that actually are more important because it worries them – can anyone explain that to me – so it makes sense?

      2. EXACTLY! Thank you so much for your post. I have been looking for someone else to talk about this HUGE issue. I have a college degree in Accounting…obviously I am not an actress 😉 Yet this IS what an interview is…acting…a play! When or if hired we are not going to sit & elaborate on our skills and I am not a salesman! I left my job of 9 years because of my mental illness getting extremely worse from bullying, harassment, & unjustifiable treatment…downright discrimination. Now I’ve been struggling for so long to find another job. The interviewers/employers have to make their own assumptions on what happened in my past because I can’t say the truth…who knows if they would believe me anyway.

  7. Revenge of Eve

    I relate to every single bit of this!! Especially having to sell yourself. Because all of us are so confident! Come on. My response, if I could be witty in a serious environment, would be “I mean come on look at me, I’m the perfect candidate for the position”, but that comes off as a bit arrogant when in reality it is a sarcastic reply, ya know. Because why the fuck are we talking about me as an individual instead of my ability to fulfill the position?
    I love that you hate people lmao…cracks me up every time!! I have a bit of an opinion on them myself but that’s a 40-year story. And the gap of employment. Try explaining rehab stints along with mental health hospitalizations. Fuck’n over it. That’s why I’ve stuck with bartending.

    1. Oh to hell with ability to fill the position, doesn’t it matter more whether you’re a toilet paper over or under kind of person? And maybe that gap in my employment is because I was busy having raunchy sex with the interviewer’s partner…. Fuck it all!

  8. Sorry, long comment.

    The early part of my career as a military doctor makes me look good on paper, but I could never go back to that sort of work again. The only full time work I’ve applied for since I left that job was quite a long time ago now, with a multinational company (doing employee medicals and managing travel health stuff for them). Although it never came up in the application process or interview, when I asked someone to be my referee I was honest with them that the gap in my resume was due to postnatal depression – not sure if that had any impact on my application or not. I didn’t get the job but that may have just been due to not being the best candidate.

    In the years since then I’ve been exceptionally lucky in that I’ve found a niche area in my field to freelance in which is a really good fit for me (surgical assisting in private hospitals). I have a fair amount of flexibility to choose how much I work and still be able to earn enough to live on. It requires a high degree of technical skill but very little decision making, and the fact that it is quite social and requires the ability to work well in a team also suits me well. I have stopped doing some associated work (seeing postop clinic patients) in the last couple of years because there were times when even fairly simple clinical decision making was too stressful and I didn’t have it in me to “look after” other people.

    I tend not to tell workplaces or individual surgeons about my mental health problems – surgeons are not known for their empathy and the few times I’ve spoken up I’ve regretted it. So I gloss over needing to reduce my workload when depressed as being due to unspecified “medical problems” and therapy is “medical appointments” or “medical treatment”. Luckily, because I work at lots of different locations, no-one really has to know when I’m not working much – each place is free to assume that I’m busy somewhere else, and when people ask me directly what else I’m doing that day or that week I’ll usually deflect by saying that I’ve got paperwork to catch up on or I’m having a quiet week.

    The times I’ve had to go actively searching for more freelance work are quite nervewracking, but once I settle in to a new situation it’s always been okay. However, I’d be up shit creek if I ever had to apply for (or do) a salaried hospital or clinic job or any sort of advanced training. I just don’t think I could do the work, and that is probably more of an issue than stigma.

    1. I’m working a couple of casual nursing jobs right now and hits definitely much easier to keep things under wraps than a regular position. And I wonder myself if I’d be capable of going back to a regular full-time position. Thanks for your comments 🙂

  9. It’s been so long since I was on a job interview, but I can only imagine how difficult it would be to even try nowadays. I use to handle them prior to my anxiety taking full control, and sweating like a beast in front of people. As I read this post, I really could see myself in the scenarios and could picture myself itching to escape it.

  10. Ooooh I’m loving this post! Frankly I’ve had more jobs than most people have had hot dinners and that means a lot of interviews. I’ve now completely changed my outlook, that being, I tell myself that I’m interviewing them to see if in actual fact I like them and want to work with them/for them and be around them every single day! Self employment for me is the easiest because I can pick and choose whom I work for and that suits me best. I find that what is important to me with mental health issues is to have good, decent people around me and a happy, calm environment. Granted, it isn’t going to be that all the time, but I certainly wouldn’t want to take on a job just for the money if the stress levels were going to rocket from the moment I walked in. It’s tricky as to whether or not to discuss the whole mental illness thing with them, honestly I think they wouldn’t want to take the risk and I sadly suspect that they’d find “a reason” why I wasn’t suitable for the post. But what is important for me, is to find a job that is not going to exacerbate the problem. It needs to fulfil me, make me happy, bring in money, get me out of the house and talking to people. If that means that I’m not a high flyer and I take a nice easy, simple job because it works for me and my mental health, then so be it. I’d rather be safe than sorry and go down that god awful slippery slope again. Sorry I’m rambling but I thought it was a great post, thought-provoking! Katie xx

  11. I hate explaining the work gap history. The most polite way I can think of as an answer is, “I was out of work due to personal health reasons, but now I am ready to get back into working regularly.” I struggle a lot with thinking of positive traits for myself without sounding like I pulled off adjectives from Google. Similarly, the “how do you handle conflict” crap kills me every time. At my last interview I flunked all those questions and haven’t done an interview since the humiliation of it.

  12. Explaing a gap in a resume, I can relate to. I left my last job after seeing management repeatedly mistreat employees. Thanks for this post!

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