Should mental illness count when you are applying for a job?




Jennifer Betts is a magistrate.  She has made decisions on about 50, 000 cases in 17 years at 7 local courts in NSW.  She’s also been diagnosed with adjustment disorder with symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Last month the NSW Judicial Commission recommended that Ms Betts be removed on grounds of “misbehaviour or incapacity” because of four complaints made against her between 2003 and 2009.  The Commission recommended that parliament should consider sacking her.

Geesche Jacobsen of the SMH writes


Jenny Betts had been the rock of her family; when her mother died more than 30 years ago, when two siblings battled alcohol problems and when her father needed hospital treatment.

But Ms Betts, 55, had become so self-reliant, she never shared her troubles. She did not tell anyone when her GP diagnosed her with depression and prescribed anti-depressants in the mid-’90s.

Over time she was subject to a death threat, resulting in regular police patrols outside her home. Often she was the only magistrate at court without security.

Her GP had advised her that she should try to come off the medication some time in the future but needed to do so slowly.

In late 2008 she decided to try. Her son was boarding, leaving her better able to cope. Unfortunately, she did not consult her doctor.

Soon after that an uncle died in a horrific car accident.

It was after this that Jennifer allegedly used bullying and domineering behaviour in court.

Earlier this week Jennifer asked New South Wales MPs not to discriminate against her because of mental illness.

“I let down the people of New South Wales,” she said. “That was in a period of time that I was not taking medication for my depressive illness. I now understand that I am a person who needs to take medication for life and I undertake to do so.”

This morning The New South Wales Upper House voted not to dismiss her.

I have no doubt that Jennifer will continue to take her medication. She understands what is at stake and she is passionate about her job, her duty to the people of NSW and indeed to her son that she brings up alone.

I have a brother-in-law with a mental illness.  He is not a magistrate and his mental illness, if mental illness could be seen on a scale, is probably a 10 compared to Ms Betts 1.  But when he is taking his medication he starts to feel better and sometimes he looks for work.  Sometimes the medication doesn’t work, sometimes he needs his dose adjusted and  if it’s working really well he stops taking it because he believes he doesn’t need it.  And then, when he is at the height of psychosis there is nothing you can do to convince him that he is sick, even when he tells you he invented money and should be ruling the world.  You know he’s sick, he believes he’s Bill Gates. Or Jesus.

He comes from a loving and stable family. Anybody from his past would give you a glowing reference as to his character.  But now that he is sick, nobody would recommend him for a job, not even when he is on medication.  He has stopped being John* now he is just his illness.

In a perfect world he would not apply at an aftercare centre to look  your children, he wouldn’t apply to operate a forklift or drive the cab that you are taking to get home to your family, But it’s not a perfect world. Far from it for a person with acute mental illness.

Should he be discriminated against because he has a mental illness?  Sometimes I’m grateful that he is. Hear me out for a second because I live with the backlash of his actions.  John* is too sick to be a magistrate, too sick to look after children or to take on any job where someone else’s life is in his hands.

Just like he would not be accepted to be a pilot if his vision was poor, just like he couldn’t be a company director if he was insolvent and couldn’t be a window cleaner if he was blind, he shouldn’t have a job where he could cause untold damage by neglecting to take his medication.

I am not judging Ms Betts, nor I am not saying she is not fit to be a magistrate if she continues to take her medication. I am also not for a second intimating that she suffers from psychosis the same way my brother does but I wonder if there are there some jobs where we DO need to discriminate against people.

Maybe sometimes people with certain conditions or illnesses should not be  able to take on just any job…



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