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Mental illness ought not to end your career in many fields, not including airline pilot

In one of my many jobs I had to look over thousands upon thousands of staff records. I learnt many things. Among them was that plenty of those staff who had had significant time off for stress or other mental problems not only returned to their old jobs and performed satisfactorily but went on to success and promotion. Before this I had believed in my heart of hearts that a month off for stress was about the limit. Anything more than that and the person was a write-off in terms of doing any useful work ever again, although it might not be politic to admit it.

Perhaps not by coincidence a month off for stress was about the limit of what had befallen anyone I knew well enough to be told about it. Since I began to think more deeply about this issue I have twigged that other people I know have almost certainly had bouts of mental illness they did not make public. My impression is that the libertarian and intellectual types likely to be reading this are more likely than average to have experienced mental illness.

There is a lot to agree with in what the Mental Health Foundation says about mental illness – it is common, most people who experience it either get better or can manage it, it need not be a barrier to success in many fields, public fear of the mentally ill is out of all proportion to the risk they actually present.

I just wish they wouldn’t over-egg the pudding. These words from the Mental Health Foundation article I linked to above are typically evasive:

Many people believe that people with mental ill health are violent and dangerous, when in fact they are more at risk of being attacked or harming themselves than harming other people.

Pardon me, but the fact that the mentally ill are more at risk of being attacked or harming themselves than of harming other people says nothing whatsoever about the absolute level of risk that they will harm other people.

Annoyingly, the Mental Health Foundation didn’t have to raise my hackles by indulging in this common evasion. The absolute risk that a mentally ill person will attack you is very low. It is higher than the risk that a non-mentally ill person will attack you, but only slightly. I don’t have the numbers to hand, but I have seen them and that is the position. Why the Mental Health Foundation cannot just show some confidence in their own position and give the numbers I do not know, unless it is that to acknowledge the obvious truth that, yes, a very small minority of mentally ill people really can be dangerous would mess up their nice simple victimhood and “anti-discrimination” agenda.

As a libertarian, I think all forms of discrimination should be legal, including those I find irrational or even morally abhorrent, but put that aside. The link correctly says,

The Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal to discriminate directly or indirectly against people with mental health problems in public services and functions, access to premises, work, education, associations and transport.

It is not illegal to discriminate against people with mental health problems when appointing someone to a job, promoting them, or firing them. There is a movement afoot that it ought to be. Many compassionate people, correctly perceiving that discrimination against those who are suffering or have suffered mental illness is often irrational and hard-hearted, are being edged towards supporting a move to make it a crime.

That movement had a setback the other day. A JetBlue pilot suffered a meltdown and had to be restrained by passengers at the request of the co-pilot, who had locked him out of the cabin. Scary. Also memorable and quotable in debate.

Wishing the pilot well for the future is not incompatible with a firm belief that it would be irresponsible to allow him back at the controls of an airliner. There are also a good many less dramatic situations in which an employee being mentally ill ought justly to be grounds for reassignment or dismissal. A pretence this is not so harms the interests of mentally ill people. There is little an organisation fears more than taking on an employee who turns out to be “trouble” and there are good reasons for this fear. That was another thing I learnt from my thousands upon thousands of personnel records. One came to dread the thick files; the ones trailing stapled-on appendices and confidential notes directing you to yet other files; files that bulged with long, messy, sad stories of warnings and final warnings and appeals and getting the union involved and even the union giving up and offloading the troublemaker onto some other department only for it all to start up again.

If ever discrimination on the grounds of mental illness does become illegal, or even publicly unacceptable, be sure it will continue to be practised in secret – and the secrecy will make it more unfair. Instead of basing their assessment of suitability on the plain answers to plain questions in application forms, they will go by code words, or a quiet (and often slanderous) word in confidence at the canteen.

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7 comments to Mental illness ought not to end your career in many fields, not including airline pilot

  • Dishman

    There was also the August 11, 2010 Steven Slater escape incident, also from JetBlue.

    Perhaps JetBlue is failing to note the warning signs, or has one or more people who are opposed to noting the warning signs.

    … files that bulged with long, messy, sad stories of warnings and final warnings ….

    … missed warnings, and Congressional inquiries into how the warnings were missed, and …

  • While I have to agree that this guy should not ever sit behind the controls of an airliner again, one should possibly observe that procedure worked in this case. He was locked out of the cockpit, and the first officer landed the plane. Procedure here is to have two pilots of essentially identical skills, only one of who is needed to fly the plane. Classically, this is to deal with the case where one pilot has a heart attack, but it appears to have also worked here in the case of a pilot who had a very visible panic attack.

    If the pilot was to go nuts in a more subtle way and simply crash the plane, that is harder to deal with, and the question of whether the pilot should return to work does not come up. This has happened, alas.

  • veryretired

    If being delusional was truly a basis for losing one’s job, there would be a whole s–tload of unemployed pols and intellectuals holding signs by freeway exits all over the country.

    What a pleasant thought…

  • Edward Turner

    Pardon me, but the fact that the mentally ill are more at risk of being attacked or harming themselves than of harming other people says nothing whatsoever about the absolute level of risk that they will harm other people.

    “Mental illness” is a rather broad term. If the expression is being used to refer to burnout and depression, then people suffering from it strike me as being less likely to harm other people rather than more, with the exception of cases in which they are doing a dangerous job that might be performed less badly due to the burnout and stress. (In this case, they do indeed need to find a job which is not in this category, which they can hopefully be highly productive at).

    On the other hand, if “mental illness” is bipolar disorder, then they are possibly more likely to harm other people.

    It’s best not to lump together, too much.

  • Paul Marks

    Veryretired – agreed.

    As for not being allowed to discriminate (in employment) against people with mental problems. George Herbert Walker Bush signed (with great fanfare)the “Americans with Disablities Act” which outlawed such discrimination.

    Yet another reason why George “read my lips no new taxesd” Herbert Walker Bush, was unfit for the office he held.

    The family had always been “Progressives” (although of a relatively moderate kind) and – young “W” was to, his “getting religion” did not effect his basic Progressivism.

    Walker may have been drunk much of the time at Yale and Harvard – but he did not commit a far greater offense. He was not guilty of independent thought that (for example) might suggest that “Teddy” Roosevelt was a bad President.

    And challenging the PRINCIPLE of “anti discrimination law” would no more occur to Walker than it would to Herbert.

    No wonder the daughter (or at least one of them) thinks “health care is a right” (thus showing the standard “Progressive” view of what a “right” is – i.e. a good or service to be financed by the collective).

    If one tots up the damage – overwhelmingly the most harmful form of “mental illness” is Progressivism.

  • Edward Turner,

    I quite agree that it’s best not to lump together too much very different types and degrees of severity of mental illness – but

    (a) they do have a certain common identity, just as the common cold and leukemia share a common identity as types of physical illness, despite the obvious difference in severity;

    and (b) all the figures that organisations such as the Mental Health Foundation cite to demonstrate that mental illness is fairly common and that the stigma it attracts is largely undeserved rely on doing exactly that: lumping together very different things such as work-related stress and bipolar disorder, to use your examples.

  • john77

    The likelihood of being attacked by someone described as suffering from mental illness is extremely low. You and I are much more likely to be attacked by a drunk yob or a spoilt brat with mild psychopathic tendencies who has never been restrained – partly because thanks to the “progressive education” policies yobs vastly outnumber those suffering from mental illness.
    What worries employers is that a *sub-category* of those with mental illness are more likely to cause trouble (including attacking other employees) than those not categorised as suffering from mental illness.
    BUT it is not the employers who are the problem – it is the lumpenproletariat who don’t want to cope with anyone different unless he is a football star or can flatten them when attacked,