Shouldn't Mothers With Mental Illness Have The Chance To "Have It All," Too?

Maxine Tucker, 50, is a mother of two and grandmother of one living and working in Minnesota.

Not long ago, she was homeless. Her situation became even worse as serious depression and alcohol abuse set in. She couldn't keep a job and her children left.

Today, Maxine is different. Through the help of a local mental health agency she was able to get her life back on track. She just passed her one-year anniversary of working in a retail position she enjoys. She found an apartment, quit drinking and her children returned to live with her.

The conversation about balancing work and family life for mothers is fraught with controversy. "Having it all" is culturally defined and muddied by stereotypes. For some slice of American women who are mothers, "having it all" conjures up notions of marriage, a family, a professional position, a home in a safe neighborhood with a decent school system and opportunities to live a better life down the road.

For women with psychiatric conditions, like Maxine, life is a different struggle -- one that I try to integrate into my research and day-to-day practice for mothers living with and recovering from serious mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

For these women, "having it all" is confounded by the obstacles put in their paths, which stem not only from their chronic or recurring illnesses, but also from the stigma associated with a psychiatric diagnosis. Their circumstances -- relationship difficulties, limited resources, restricted opportunities and, in extreme cases, homelessness -- are often the direct result of serious mental illness.

But with the right support, mothers and almost every person with mental illness can succeed.

For Maxine, recovery began with treatment but her rehabilitation also included something many of us take for granted: a job. Maxine participates in a recovery-oriented supported employment program called Individual Placement and Support (IPS), which was developed by psychiatric rehabilitation specialists at the Dartmouth Psychiatric Research Center and supported by Johnson & Johnson. "I'm feeling whole again," explained Maxine. "I try to be the best I can be every single day -- at work and at home."

Unfortunately, most people with serious mental illness do not have access to this kind of service. For them, the unemployment rate is almost 90 percent. Maxine found an IPS employment specialist, Ester, through her mental health agency. Ester helped Maxine with coping strategies and with adjusting her daily schedule to fit work, home life and illness management. With these tools, Maxine was able to explore employment options and negotiate with her supervisor for accommodations that allow her to stay on the job and be successful.

According to Ester, the role of the employment specialist is to help people with mental illness -- particularly those with children -- think "outside the box" to come up with solutions to day-to-day work problems as they emerge. Anyone who is a parent knows that, with children, what you don't expect to happen is almost certain to happen. For example, when school is cancelled for a snow day and you don't have childcare.

Through the partnership of Dartmouth and Johnson & Johnson, a small army of these specialists is working in 15 states to help people recovering from serious mental illness obtain meaningful work. Their success in those states has attracted greater attention internationally.

I invite readers, especially employers, to participate in my goal: to ensure that equal attention is paid to parenting for mothers living with mental illness so that they, too, can "have it all" -- at work and at home.