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Employment

I was unemployed for nearly 20 years – mental health support changed my life

Experts say long-term unemployment is likely to continue rising for at least the next few years. One man who hit rock bottom says mental health support is the answer.

Anonymous, told to Evie Breese

For nearly 20 years I wouldn’t smile. And it wasn’t just the depression and anxiety that caused it – I didn’t have teeth. 

I knocked the first half of my teeth out when I was 11. I fell and hit my jaw right on the kerb. School had been alright until then. My dad had bought me one of the first home computers – a ZX Spectrum – and I had shown a natural talent for maths.

But I was always a shy kid, and the other kids started making fun of how my mouth looked when I opened it, so I kept it closed, stopped talking, stopped smiling and started truanting. 

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Someone grassed me up for smoking weed on the college premises when I was a teenager, which got me a criminal record and kicked out.

It was the start of the ’90s, when the recession started and there weren’t any jobs that felt worth doing. Being unemployed seemed alright for a while, when you’ve got friends and interests. You’re getting a bit of money from the government to live on, and I was staying at my mum’s house. I just wanted to keep my head-down and have a quiet life. 

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Maybe people are realising more now, after the lockdowns, how detrimental it is to spend a long time on your own.

But after a few years you start to see your friends moving on, getting jobs, getting into relationships, moving house, and you suddenly realise you’re in the same place, but you’ve actually gone backwards. You start to see all the things you can’t afford to do; go out with friends, buy clothes or get a haircut to look after your appearance. 

When I got into a fight in my early twenties, that saw off the last of my front teeth and just sent me all the way down. I fell into a deep depression that lasted about 15 years.  

I didn’t like being unemployed, I hated it, but the longer it went on the more impossible it seemed to get out of it.

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The more time you spend out of work the less likely you are to get a job. [Between 2007 and 2020, almost half of people who had been out of work for less than three months returned to work in the following three months. But just seven per cent of people who had been unemployed for between five and eight years found work in the following three months.]

Those next 15 years I moved around a lot, I guess technically I was homeless, moving between sofas. And then it was drugs and alcohol that consumed my life. I thought it was helping me cope with my depression and anxiety, but really it was making it worse. 

I didn’t want to speak, I didn’t want to open my mouth, and that became a real big problem. So people didn’t want me around, I lost friends. They had their own lives to lead so I spent almost all of my time alone.

In the end, it was the desperate loneliness that pushed me to the edge. Maybe people are realising more now, after the lockdowns, how detrimental it is to spend a long time on your own. At first I was too scared to interact with people, but that grew to the point where I forgot how to do it and then simply became unable to.

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We’re hearing that progress that was made in reducing long-term unemployment has reversed since the pandemic, and it’s not hard for me to see why. 

Months have turned into years for people who have been stuck at home, and I fear the futures of thousands of young people risk being permanently damaged. The number of young people unemployed for more than a year has increased by almost a fifth in 12 months. 

Being broken for so long, it was bloody hard to get on my feet again. I went to a doctor who got me on antidepressants. It’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. 

The antidepressants shifted my perspective, and I saved up £1,000 to go to an NHS dentist to get my first pair of dentures. 

Maybe that would have made the difference all along, but I didn’t feel like I deserved them until then. I also went cold turkey on the drink and drugs. 

After that, I got my first job as a care worker. It was through a family friend, and I had to fabricate my CV. I had to make up loads of stuff, I put down jobs at mates’ businesses to fill the almost 20 year gap from leaving school until then. 

What else could I have done? Tell a potential employer that I’d been out for work for 20 years because of drugs, alcohol and depression? 

I went to a doctor who got me on antidepressants. It’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me

The interview itself was a blur, I just wanted them to see that I was a kind and compassionate person because that’s really all I had to offer at that point. I remember the guy saying he liked my calmness, and that would be good to help care for people with learning disabilities. 

When they offered me the job it was just brilliant. The job itself was hard and it was minimum wage but I didn’t care. Having a schedule was strange, too, as I hadn’t needed to look at the time much for the past two decades, but it was a better life. 

After that, I worked a variety of low-paid jobs, but it felt good to be active again. In the evenings I was doing an Open University course in software development. One day I was talking to the boss of a distribution company, and asked if they had any entry level jobs going in the IT department. He took me on as an apprentice, and now I work in coding. I love every day of it. 

The social anxiety is still with me – I expect I’ll always be someone who prefers to keep their head down, avoid crowds and just crack on with a project solo. But I’ve found a career that allows me to do that while earning good money. 

After getting on antidepressants I decided to sign up to internet dating too, and went on my first date. We’re now married. 

I look back on those 20 years of my life as such a waste – so much could have been achieved. There is less stigma attached to mental health problems as back then, but I fear that after years of not socialising, of not being able see a doctor face-to-face, many people with mental health conditions will have gotten worse. 

One in six young people had a diagnosable mental health disorder in 2020, up from one in nine three years earlier. More than half of those people with a diagnosable condition pre-pandemic did not receive the mental health support they needed.

We need to be helping people of all ages – but particularly young people – to manage their mental health conditions. No amount of training courses or apprenticeships would have worked when I was so deep in my depression I would hardly speak. 

I feel grateful every day for that GP who took my depression and anxiety seriously. He didn’t just tell me to snap out of it, or suggest I was lazy. And while I still fear that the fabrication on my CV will get found out, I’m glad I took the risk because I can’t see another way to have gotten where I am today. 

I am now a software engineer and happy for the first time in my life. It’s like I’ve come full circle – from playing around on that old ZX Spectrum as a child – to being a proper professional coder. I just got derailed on the way here. 

I always had hope that things would get better, but without the right support for my mental health I don’t see how they could have. 

Do you have a story to share about a job interview that changed your life, an incredible career pivot or unique work journey? 

Get in touch by emailing evie.breese@bigissue.com

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