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Mental Illness Is Not a Full-Time Job

By: the Center for Mental Health Services/Knowledge Exchange Network

"Work is about daily meaning as well as daily bread." -Studs Terkel

Like all workers, people with severe mental illnesses can benefit greatly from the security and self-sufficiency that come with stable and fulfilling employment.

In addition to providing a living, work gives people a sense of belonging and community. It also creates a network of friends and colleagues.

Mental health problems can occur at any age. Young people with mental health problems may be looking for entry-level jobs. Adults with mental illness may need to learn new skills, pursue different employment paths, or develop ways to stay on their current job. At any point in a person's life, severe mental illness will present challenges which, with the right support, people can overcome.

"Before I had bipolar disorder, I was an electrical engineer. Manic depression did not take that away from me-I still have that knowledge, those skills, and that experience."

Getting and Keeping a Job

Many communities have resources to help people with mental illness acquire the skills needed to find and keep a job.

Supported employment - which can include vocational training or retraining and job coaching - is one way that people with mental illness can make their way into the work world. Models of supported employment include individual placement and support (IPS) and clubhouses. The Employment Intervention Demonstration Program, a new initiative funded by the Center for Mental Health Services in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, is studying ways to help consumers keep competitive jobs-real work for real wages in the real world.

Taking the First Steps

For people with severe mental illness who are just entering the workforce, there are a few ways to start their job search. They may ask their therapist, social worker, case manager, or psychiatrist to recommend a supported employment agency. They can ask friends to recommend helpful programs. Consumer advocacy organizations often offer employment guidance or can refer people to agencies in their community.

State and local governments have local employment service agencies. Most also have vocational rehabilitation agencies that can help people with mental illness acquire new skills and be successful in the job market.

Equal Protection Under the Law: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA mandates that all people have a fair chance to pursue their dreams. The Act prohibits businesses that employ 15 or more people from discriminating against a qualified candidate on the basis of his or her disability-including mental illness. Businesses must make reasonable accommodations - such as adapting training materials and providing flexible work schedules or routines - for qualified people with disabilities.

Coping in the Workplace

People with mental illness who have successfully found jobs say that specific strategies have helped them to stay on the job-even when their illness or emotions made them want to quit. Coping strategies include:
  • Finding services that meet their needs-whether that treatment is "talk" therapy, medication, alternative therapy, support groups, or a combination of these.
  • Asking for support from family and friends.
  • Focusing on the positives of working-financial security, independence, and personal satisfaction.
  • Recognizing the influence of individual personalities and office politics.
  • Keeping life in balance.
Knowledge Exchange Network
P.O. Box 42490
Washington, DC 20015
Phone: 800-789-CMHS (2647)
Electronic Bulletin Board: 800-790-CMHS (2647)
World Wide Web:
Fax: 301-984-8796
TDD: 301-443-9006

Job Resources

Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation
Boston University
730 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
617-353-7701 (TDD)

Fountain House
425 West 47th Street
New York, NY 10036-2304

Job Accommodation Network
West Virginia University
P.O. Box 6080
Morgantown, WV 26506

Matrix Research Institute/Penn Research and Training Center on Mental Illness and Work
6008 Wayne Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19144
215-438-1506 (TDD)

National Empowerment Center
20 Ballard Road
Lawrence, MA 01843

National Mental Health Consumers' Self-Help Clearinghouse
1211 Chestnut Street, Suite 1000
Philadelphia, PA 19107

National Rehabilitation Information Center
8455 Colesville Road, Suite 935
Silver Spring, MD 20910

National Research and Training Center on Psychiatric Disability and Peer Support
104 South Michigan Avenue, Suite 900
Chicago, IL 60603

Rise, Inc.
8406 Sunset Road, NE
Spring Lake Park, MN 55432

For a free list of State vocational rehabilitation agencies, write:

Rehabilitation Services Administration
U.S. Department of Education
Switzer Building, Room 3211
330 C Street, SW
Washington, DC 20202-2574

On the Internet, go to the Department of Labor's America's Job Bank, which links 1,800 State employment services offices:

Self-Talk and Self-Help:
How to Get Started

Job-hunting can be exhausting and, at times, discouraging. Here are 10 tips for achieving success, either in searching for a new job or returning to an old one.

1. View barriers as mere inconveniences or challenges you can solve.
2. Don't let past setbacks derail your new effort.
3. Develop a personal vision and strategy for getting a job.
4. Understand your illness and its symptoms so you can develop ways to minimize its effect on your job success.
5. Learn as much as possible-about your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), about State and local programs, and about effective job-hunting strategies.
6. Ask family and friends for support and encouragement.
7. Find a supported employment agency that has a proven track record and is sensitive to mental health consumer issues.
8. Discover the power and worth of developing healthy, interdependent relationships.
9. Understand employers' motivations.
10. Change your attitude. Don't let pride or fear keep you from saying and doing what you need to do.

Adapted with permission from Working on the Dream: A Guide to Career Planning and Job Success, by Don Lavin and Andrea Everett. Rise, Inc., 1996.

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