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For the first three years of my career, I was always employed (internship and one full-time job). Then, after I got laid off because the last company I worked for went under, I couldn't motivate myself to look for work for one year and six months. This was due to untreated depression, which also made it very difficult to manage the last jobs I had (though I did, and still have former coworkers and my employer willing to act as references).

A few months ago I started seeing a doctor and taking medication, and now I am confident I can work and am ready, but it's been one year and ten months since I last held a job. How do I explain this to potential employers?

I don't feel comfortable blaming the economy, since I live in a place where there are tons of jobs in my field.

During my extended unemployment, I was able to keep studying about my field (software engineering) and remained current. I even did some freelance work, but only about a month's worth spread out across the nearly two year period. Not enough to have to get the tax-man involved.

I am considering claiming I did freelance work during this period, but I am afraid they will find out that I only did so sporadically.

Right now I'm working on a few personal FOSS projects that will be ready to put on my resume in a few days, which I hope will help, but that doesn't explain the unemployment.

My background: I got a GED, went to community college (already took a few CS classes in the evening during high school), got an internship at 16 and quickly left that for a full-time job. I am 20 now and became unemployed at 19. I live in the USA.

Right now, going back to school is not an option because of my financial situation. It is something I am willing to consider in the long term, though.

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Other answers have pointed out that in the US it is illegal for employers to discriminate based on medical issues like depression, but they do. The flip side of that is that, while it is certainly legal for you to disclose your medical condition, unless you're asking for an accommodation it is unwise to do so -- unwise for you, and burdensome to your prospective employer.

I've seen lots of resumes with big gaps, and I always want to know why they're there. But I don't need the details unless they're directly, professionally relevant. When a gap is explained as a medical issue, the only thing I and my fellow interviewers want to know is: is it over? Are you ready to work now? We not only don't care what the medical issue was, but we often don't want the liability of having that knowledge -- if you tell us and we don't hire you, we may have to do extra work to prove it wasn't discriminatory. Don't put someone you hope will be your colleague into that position.

So, you explain the gap as dealing with "a medical issue, now resolved" and leave it at that. They don't need, or want, to know more. And absolutely do not lie about the contract work; lying about your experience is fraud and is generally a firing offense when it's discovered.

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    Good question. I would be inclined to not volunteer it, especially if you have a degree, GED, or freelance projects during some of that time (they may assume you were doing the school/part-time-work thing). But I don't think it's clear-cut, and in a tight job market it might be more important to prevent the auto-dismissal of candidates who might seem flawed ("we've got hundreds more"). So I'm not sure I can answer that for you, but there might be related questions here already. – Monica Cellio Jun 10 '13 at 17:21
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    I think this is a great answer. I see no upside to pointing it out. If they want to know let them ask you in an interview. If they are going to disregard you for it chances are no excuse short of classified operation for god and country, is going to save you. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Jun 10 '13 at 18:57
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    @martinf religion, hobbies, and children are irrelevant, but if someone has a long gap it's reasonable to want if it's professionally relevant. Has he been unable to find a job in all that time (why?), or has he been spending the time on something else (don't need details) and is only now entering the workforce? If the latter, I don't really care if he's been attending to a medical issue, doing missionary work in the third world, traveling, or whatever. And if the gap is because he's been doing self-study to improve his skills, I certainly want to know that positive info. – Monica Cellio Oct 12 '14 at 16:41
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    @martinf I'm not going to keep arguing with you. I do know that lots of companies ask for gaps to be explained; this is normal in my experience on both sides of the interview table, and no candidate should be surprised by it. Both participants will ask the questions they feel relevant; to claim that one side gets to decide what the other may ask (if legal) is not realistic. Your speculations about potential discrimination don't match up with my actual experience. Anyway, feel free to offer your own answer to this question. – Monica Cellio Oct 13 '14 at 18:12
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    @xjcl could be cancer, now in remission. (That's about how long it was for a friend of mine.) – Monica Cellio Mar 9 '18 at 2:37
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It's an unfortunate reality that there is misunderstanding of and a stigma attached to depression and other mental illnesses in modern U.S. society. While I believe the situtation is changing for the better, I've had social interactions with family members and other people in medical professions (and other professions) in which I've heard comments like "People who say they have depression are really just lazy and could change if they want to." (That's not my personal viewpoint, btw; hopefully that's obvious.) So, I can understand a reluctance to discuss the situation.

As maple_shaft's answer indicates, in general, employers in the U.S. are not supposed to discriminate against you on medical grounds. That doesn't mean it doesn't happen. When it does happens, you may never know for sure that's what happened, and it's difficult to prove in court if you suspect it. Furthermore, it may not be worth going to court: Firstly, that probably isn't an employer you would want to work for; secondly, if you sue for illegal discrimination you may find it diffcult to get interviews with other organizations.

As Monica Cellio's answer says, you don't have to disclose anything about this unless you are asked. Below are a few options I have thought of that you could use if you are asked:

Full disclosure

Tell your inteviewer that you were suffering depression and unable to work. Also tell them that you have received treatment and are able to work now. Point to your open source contributions as a demonstration of your ability to work. It is possible that the interviewer will not like your situation and discriminate against you; however, if they offer you a job, I'd expect they'd be supportive and understanding.

Partial disclosure, medical reasons

Pretty much the same as above, except don't state your specific condition. Perhaps my knowledge is out of date, but I believe that specifics about medical issues are off-limits in (U.S.) interviews. (An exception to this would be asking about medical issues which would make the applicant unable to perform the duties of the job.) Thus, if you say that you were out of work due to medical issues, but have received treatment and are recovered now, they ought to leave that subject alone.

Partial disclosure, freelancing

As you've already said, you might just say you were freelancing. You can further explain that the reason you are pursuing full time employment is the low amount of work you found.

Wanted/needed time off for personal reasons

Another tactic would be to say you just wanted/needed some time off to attend to personal issues. With this approach, don't state that it was a medical issue that caused you to miss work. In the interviewer's mind, this leaves open other possibilities, such as taking time off to travel or take care of a sick relative; of course, it could lead to thoughts of more nefarious issues also (time in jail, for example).

Recommendations

If your main interest is getting a job to get back into the work force, I do not believe any single answer here is the "best" to use in all circumstances. During interviews you will need to make a guess as to what interviewer's viewpoints are about issues such as this.

On the other hand, if you want to work in a place that will be understanding and supportive of your situation, the full disclosure route is probably best, although I can see that citing medical reasons without specifying it was depression may be as good or better. However, since some employers may be reluctant to hire you, you may need to be more patient in getting a job and have more financial resources (or resourcefulness) to get by until that job arrives.

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    Thus, if you say that you were out of work due to medical issues, but have received treatment and are recovered now, they ought to leave that subject alone. Very good advice. – maple_shaft Jun 11 '13 at 11:10
  • I'd be stronger on the illegal discrimination issue. If illegally discriminated against, you will not know it. There will be a plausible excuse for not hiring you. Suing is almost certainly not going to work (although I found that filing a complaint with the State didn't seem to hurt me after that). – David Thornley Nov 30 '18 at 18:24
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At your age, having any work experience puts you much further ahead than most. I don't think the job gap is a red flag. You've been studying and working on other projects. Now you're ready to look for a job. A lot of this can be explained further in a good cover letter.

Look into joining some local meetup groups (In person, not just online.). If there are tons of jobs in your field, there shouldn't be too much trouble finding one that suits you. This will give you an opportunity to get out, interact with others, make connections to help you network for a job and provide a bit of a buffer before full-time employment. You may gain some insight to see if you are ready.

  • Plus one for mentioning age. Gaps in employment matter less when you still have more work experience than the vast majority of your peers. – Yozarian22 Jun 10 '13 at 19:19
  • But how do they know I'm a peer? I mean, they can't see my age in my resume or cover letter, and I look much older than I am. – Steven Jun 11 '13 at 2:53
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    He notes 2 years experience and no degree...he will be competing mainly with new grads and I don't think his situation puts him ahead of them. – jmorc Jun 11 '13 at 12:24
  • In my experience, it will depend on the interviewer and/or organization. Some places won't even consider hiring the OP without a college degree; others will prefer the work experience. – GreenMatt Jun 11 '13 at 13:07
  • @Steven While you say you can't explicitly state your age, you can get it across in loads of other ways, there must be dates in your resume from when you were at school etc. I know you don't have a degree but my cover letter mentions that I graduated in 2008, you can word something similar that makes it clear that you are young. – Fiona - myaccessible.website Nov 26 '13 at 15:21
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The US economy (and one could argue the culture in general) is a zero-sum game. It is a game of winners and losers. While it is against the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) to discriminate against potential candidates because of a medical condition like depression, this is a fairly common practice because it is so hard to prove.

I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder and occasionally get bouts of panic attacks where I am mostly unable to perform functions of a job. I could try to seek special accommodations from my boss when I am undergoing a panic attack but I mostly try to keep this a secret because one more thing to worry about would be if my boss decides I am a liability then look for any scapegoat reason to lay me off. That line of thinking actually could be influenced by anxiety and paranoia but I do believe this and try to suffer off the clock if possible.

In your specific case though the bigger reason you may have trouble finding a (good) job is that you do not seem to have any formal education beyond your GED, and that cuts your job prospects almost in half. Take things into perspective, you are only 20 years old, no employer would judge you for not holding a steady job, you were still arguably a child when you began working full time. Use this opportunity to attend university or a community college, or an online school and earn a degree. When you get out of school there will be an enormous wealth of opportunity waiting for you.

The bottom line is that I think keeping your personal demons private is the best choice for your own good until it becomes absolutely necessary to explain it to your boss after the fact.

  • But how would they know that I'm only 20? I look much older than I really am, and I can't really put my age in my resume. – Steven Jun 11 '13 at 2:54
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    @Steven The short work history coupled with the relative recentness of the GED would indicate that you're young, though they might guess 25ish rather than 20ish. I'm not certain I agree with the premise that it'll be written off as youthful mistakes, but they're likely to assume you're reasonably young. – Yamikuronue Jun 14 '13 at 18:50
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Don't sweat the employment gap. You're still at an age when employment gaps are expected.

There are already some good answers here, so the rest of this doesn't answer your question, but are words of advice from my own experience.

Take care of your depression first. Be on a solid footing before adding the stress of a job. Does you community have an organization that helps persons with depression get ready again for work, school, etc.? You health provider should have information about such organizations. They can help you with a resume, practice interviews, goals, and all sorts of other things. Your first job is take care of your health.

You don't have to say anything about your medical condition. There definitely is a stigma to mental health in the US, so it is better to not over share. It isn't something to bring up to you employer or co-workers. Your medical condition is nobody's business but your own, and those with whom you choose to share.

For anyone who is employed, if you need to go on medical leave for any reason, you should work with the Human Resources department to take care of the arrangements, and follow their advice.

Speaking from experience, it is better to face a job lose early in life as it will prepare you for the next job lose. My first lay off came when I was in my 20s and I hated it at the time, I was very bitter, depressed, and despondent. It took months to cope with it even after I got my next job. When the next lay off occurred 10 years later I was able to deal with it much better because I had learned that it can happen to anyone, and I wasn't dumbstruck by it. I bounced back quickly because I knew it wasn't the end of the world, or a judgement about me as a person. I had also learned that it is good to always keep your resume update, know what skills are needed in my industry, and have an emergency fund to pay the bills.

I'm pushing 50 now, and some of my friends who are in different fields, have experienced their first lay off because of the down turn in the economy. They don't know what to do and are going through everything I went through, including the depression, and I can see that they are having a much rougher time of it than I did. They thought it would never happen to them, and were not emotionally or financially prepared it.

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Simple: don't say you were depressed. Simply say you took time off to work on your personal hobbies. Turn it into a positive. It's a question of how forthcoming you want to be about a personal/medical situation versus how tactful you want to be. I suggest tact instead of total forthcoming-ness in this case, because (a) there is no legal obligation to divulge your medical history; (b) during those two years you certainly worked on personal hobbies, correct? So focus on the positive things you did during those two years. Every interview advice tells you to focus on positive stuff, not negative stuff. So simply apply that advice to this situation too.

  • without an explanation, this answer may become useless in case if someone else posts an opposite opinion. For example, if someone posts a claim like "Simple: say straight you were depressed. Don't lie that you took time off to work on your personal hobbies. Turn it into a honest statement.", how would this answer help reader to pick of two opposing opinions? Consider editing it into a better shape, to meet How to Answer guidelines – gnat Mar 12 '14 at 18:52
  • @gnat: okay, I rewrote it with your suggestions in mind. – Michael Martinez Mar 12 '14 at 18:56
  • I have a feeling that it will be difficult to sustain the personal hobbies line in a convincing manner at interview. There's no legal obligation to divulge, but appearing evasive won't make people want to hire you! – EleventhDoctor Jul 14 '15 at 7:40
  • As someone who has done hiring, I woudl probably look more favorably on a person who took time off for medical issues that are now resolved than someone who quit to pursue personal hobbies especially a young person with little work history to prove reliability. That just makes them look unreliable and someone who woudl bail out whenever they felt like it. – HLGEM Dec 22 '16 at 19:50
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I think it is a HUGE mistake to reveal the nature of your illness. You mention it is a small industry and information like that tends to float in the air once it is out there. Don't for one minute believe that the people you interview with or work for are above gossip. You don't need that to follow you around for the rest of your career. Just say medical leave and stick to that. It is a crying SHAME how mental illness is such a stigma in the U.S. but we need to be realistic about it. Telling someone this puts you at a disadvantage.

  • Welcome to The Workplace lil twy -- appreciate your contribution. Note that this question is from 2 years ago and already has an accepted answer. Feel free to check out some of the most recent questions as well. – mcknz Mar 30 '16 at 18:24

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