By Betty Kenyon, Community Rehabilitation and Emergency Services Vocational Coordinator
I am the Vocational Coordinator/Employment Specialist at United Counseling Service for the Community Rehabilitation and Treatment Program (CRT). Following an evidence-based model of supported employment called Individual Placement and Support (IPS), I help people with severe and persistent mental illness find and maintain work. The following principles guide the IPS approach:
- Every person who wants to work is eligible for IPS services (zero exclusion regardless of mental health symptoms or substance use)
- Competitive jobs are the goal (not sheltered or set-aside for people with mental illness)
- IPS services are integrated with mental health treatment
- Personalized benefits planning is provided (If someone is receiving Social Security Administration Benefits (SSA), I work with them to understand how employment will affect those benefits and to work with employers to manage the number of hours, etc. so they don’t lose their benefits, health insurance or food stamps as long as they need them)
- The job search starts soon after the person expresses interest in working
- Employment Specialists build relationships with employers based upon their client’s work preferences
- Individual job supports are time-unlimited
- Client preferences are honored
Recently I have had four clients return to work which led to greater independence and self-sufficiency to the point they no longer needed services from our CRT Program.
Employment gives people a purpose, a goal and a reason to get up every day. Employment is a way to have a better quality of life because SSA Benefits are designed for survival and not an enriched life.
Offering or even suggesting the Supported Employment Program to a CRT client carries a powerful message of hope with the expectation that people can, and do, recover from serious mental health and substance use challenges.
One person I am working with, who has been employed for almost three years, told me, “Working has enhanced my life by making friends, having more money and getting more exercise.” Another person I support, who has been working for several years, said, “Work makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something. Accomplishment is very important to me. I feel like I am part of the team and they trust me.”
Working helps a person identify their individual strengths and it helps them feel positive about themselves. It gives an individual with mental illness hope. They start to feel they have an illness rather than being the illness. Some barriers for people with mental illness looking for work is fear, concern that they will lose benefits, having a criminal history, poor self-care and symptoms of the mental illness itself. Talking with individuals about employment brings hope to their lives. It is always their decision to work not the agencies or anyone else’s; only they know when they are ready to work.
I am encouraged to talk to all participants of our CRT program about work and the importance it can have in their lives. I feel like I am planting the seed, giving hope and encouragement, and, most of all, believing in them.
I worked with a client a few years ago that had never really held a job. When she came to our program, she was homeless, living in the woods in her truck. We got her an apartment and eventually a job. She walked four miles to work, worked four to eight-hour shifts and then walked back home. Not only did she have a serious mental illness, but we later discovered she had brain cancer. She was so proud of herself for working and being an example for her two grown sons. She was eventually let go after several months of working due to uncontrollable use of foul language and challenging social skills which she would get sad about it. I would always remind her that she had worked and how proud I was of her and reiterate all the positive things that came from her working. That was a success! She sat up straighter, her chest swelled and said “Heck, yeah, I worked, and I am [expletive] proud of myself. That job was hard, and I had to walk back and forth.” Even through her sadness was great pride in herself for giving work a chance.
If I can make a difference in even one life to help someone find a good job match that improves the quality of their life, then my work is done. It is my honor to work the people at the CRT program of UCS.
At the end of the day as I reflect, I often wonder who has helped whom.