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'Manic depression killed my career'

By Paula Dear
BBC News

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With the rate of redundancies rising and the number of job vacancies shrinking, unemployment is back in the headlines. But for millions it never went away. As part of a series on Britain's jobless, one man whose career was shattered by illness explains how and why lack of work has touched his life.

For Richard Bassil, 46, work was not just work, it was his life.

But for the past seven years he has existed without it. Now he feels he has a "mountain to climb" to ever return to where he was.

Richard, who is single and lives in a garden flat in Southampton, is one of more than two million people in Britain who are not in work - and not seeking work - because they are long-term sick.

Despite being diagnosed with bipolar disorder - manic depression - in his early 20s, he had maintained his career as a design draughtsman for almost 17 years before things hit the buffers.

BRITAIN'S JOBLESS
Our series asks, who are Britain's jobless?
Interviews with five people who are out of work published on the BBC News website in December and January

"When I hear friends say they wish they'd won the Lottery and didn't have to work, I say you don't realise how much you'd miss the job. You don't realise how much of a part of your life it is, until it goes," he says.

Working wasn't always easy, and there were problems along the way. Sometimes Richard became so unwell he had to be admitted to psychiatric hospital.

At one stage his bosses turned up at his bedside to make him redundant.

"I was amazed that they considered that a good idea," he says.

But overall he was coping, was finding jobs and contract work and had established the right level of treatment to stay well.

In 2001 things changed after the anti-psychotic drugs he was taking were withdrawn from the market. About the time he switched to a different treatment, he attempted suicide and ended up in intensive care for eight days.

High moods can be advantageous in a work situation because you tend to be more alert - it's a positive thing at one level, and destructive when it gets severe
Richard Bassil

"I lost my contract after that, and my employment agency stopped offering me work."

Bipolar disorder is an emotional condition, which causes people to swing between the highs and lows of mania and depression.

Where previously Richard had experienced more highs and less depression, after the suicide attempt things changed.

"After that it was very long periods of depression, as opposed to the multiple high moods - which I could work with as long as they were controlled.

"High moods can actually be advantageous in a work situation because you tend to be more alert, more able to associate ideas. It's a positive thing at one level, and a destructive thing when it gets severe."

HOW BIPOLAR AFFECTS RICHARD
Cycle of highs and lows - mania, then depression
During manic period optimism increases, multiple projects started; chaos ensues; develops delusions of grandeur, loses touch with reality
Periods of mania usually end in admission to hospital, often sectioned under Mental Health Act
Subsequent prolonged depression causes lack of motivation, negative thoughts, demoralisation and withdrawal from society

An episode of severe mania for Richard usually ends in him being sectioned under the Mental Health Act, which has happened about once a year since he stopped working.

After the high, always, comes the depression. It usually lasts for months on end.

"You become totally inactive, lacking any motivation and your thinking becomes very negative. You become demoralised and withdraw yourself from social situations."

Where possible Richard occupies himself with projects at home, voluntary work and attending music and woodwork sessions at a social services centre. He practises guitar most days, tries to keep stimulated.

He has pressed for a new drugs regime, and plots out "mood charts" to keep tabs on his state of mind.

Richard Bassil

"It's about coping."

He thinks about how and when he can return to work. Often, when he is in a high mood, he will start making plans on getting jobs or running his own business. But then the mania takes over, and it is back to square one.

The fact that Richard loved his job so much was a positive force in his life. But it was also part of the problem.

"Something I suffered from early on in my life, and still do to a certain extent, is a wish for perfection and a fear of failure. Those are not necessarily good traits in terms of not letting yourself become overwhelmed."

His illness would often escalate at the end of large projects, as the pressure released and he "let go", he says.

'Trapped'

The erosion of his confidence since becoming unemployed is a further barrier to working again in the future, which is part of the vicious cycle many jobless people describe.

"I wonder whether I could ever go back to the job I did. Engineering is my love, and it's finding something that would give me the same sense of satisfaction and use my skills."

And convincing an employer to take him on after seven years of not working is hard to imagine, he says, not least because even if his health stabilises he cannot guarantee he will not become unwell again.

Richard Bassil looking at some of his designs
Would returning to his old career be good for Richard's health?

"In the past I've hidden my illness when going for job interviews, but now I couldn't do that. And it would be impossible given the length of time."

Meanwhile he gets by on Incapacity Benefit and low-rate Disability Living Allowance, which gives him about 84 a week for food, bills, clothes and general spending. His rent and council tax are covered by benefits.

"It's not a lot of money but if you're careful with it... it's not really about the benefits, I'd just much rather be working."

He feels trapped by the system because it is so hard to keep coming on and off benefits. Occasionally he works with a friend, fitting kitchens and bathrooms, but can only earn 20 a week from it before it starts affecting his payments.

'Scary'

It would be better if people with chronic health conditions could effectively stay on benefits permanently, but then work when they were well enough and have their benefits adjusted accordingly, says Richard.

Trying to return to a level of work that could completely replace benefits is "scary", he adds.

"It seems you've got to jump out of the frying pan into the fire. There's no halfway house.

"It's a frightening feeling to imagine getting back into employment from the situation I am in."

Photographs by Emma Lynch

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