By Hector Manuel Ramirez
May is Mental Health Month, a time where we raise awareness of mental health by educating people, advocating for better access to services and empowering communities to have the courage to have the conversation so we can fight the stigma associated with mental illness. Oftentimes, however, there is one topic that has not traditionally been part of these conversations and that is employment.
For most people, there is no wellness without employment. People with disabilities have a disproportionately higher rate of unemployment and subsequently, tend to live with a higher rate of poverty. People with mental illnesses are now experiencing a high rate of homelessness as well, which makes supports like rehabilitation and employment services more important than ever. That is why, during Mental Health Month, we also need to address the issue of employment as a pathway out of poverty.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that the number of adults with any diagnosable mental disorder is nearly one in five people in the U.S. – or approximately 43 million Americans. And while most mental health conditions are not disabling, NIMH does report that nearly 10 million American adults do have a functional impairment due to a mental illness – or about one in 25 people.
A large number of people who develop a mental health condition are forced to seek help early in their adult life, typically while away at college. This can result in impacts on grade performance, delayed graduation rates and an increase in dropout rates. It’s important that colleges and universities have the necessary supports that help students stay in school and graduate because education tends to be the key determinant for future employment and income. Supports such as class accommodations, school mental health services and improved graduation strategies would mean that more young adults can graduate and join the workforce without major interruptions. Similarly, these strategies can be implemented in high school along with early intervention strategies to help students obtain access to higher education, vocational training and other settings that support individuals’ employment goals.
Once people decide that work is right for them, programs like “Ticket to Work” can connect folks with employment services to help them prepare for work, find a job or maintain success while working. There are career counseling, vocational rehabilitation, mentoring services and job placements which people can connect with at their state Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) agency.
We know that people with mental health conditions have to deal with a monumental amount of stigma and discrimination, especially at work. Living with a non-apparent disability means having to deal with the consequences of disclosing or not disclosing our mental illness to potential employers, coworkers and the people we provide our employment services to. Laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Fair Housing Act, Rehabilitation Act, Air Carrier Access Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) protect and impact our rights, so it’s a good idea to connect with state and national advocacy agencies to help you understand them.
Another great strategy to employment is Peer Certification a process by which peers with lived experiences combine training, and job experience to work alongside healthcare teams. This process is something that is taking place in many states and others like California are getting ready to implement. Here in California, peer specialists are an effective and cost saving strategy that gives people with mental health disabilities the support they need, including employment services. Peer specialists have lived experience as consumers in the mental health system and are therefore in a unique position to help others gain access to helpful supports and services.
In a special pilot program with Mental Health America and Kaiser Permanente, peer specialist who had gotten trained and certified had the opportunity to work in their facilities and provide services to members. These peer certified specialist provided direct services and made a difference in the lives of people they intimately understand because they have gone through the same mental health struggles. Peer specialists become trusted advisors and provide meaningful connections with those who need it most.
In order to receive certification, peer specialists need to train on providing a variety of services, such as program navigation, services linkage, community integration, advocacy, support groups, and other operational procedures which makes these certifications even more valuable.
Another benefit of standardized certification is that it allows peer specialists to work anywhere in the state of California in the public and private sectors, so that people are not limited to working only in the area where they received training. And once we have national certification standard folks could use these certifications in other states in both private and public settings.
Another example is the peer specialists program in LA County that works with the homeless population for those with mental health disabilities, including substance abuse. These peer specialists were once homeless themselves and now have the opportunity to work on the streets with clinical staff and provide services to this population. This is so successful that this peer model is now being used with our local Veterans to help other Veterans.
People with mental health disabilities can get better and find employment with the right supports and services. It’s time for us to end the stigma and discrimination that results from misconceptions about mental illness. We thrive as a society when we include everyone.
Héctor Manuel Ramírez is a lifelong disability rights advocate and policy wonk focusing on the intersection of issues affecting people, families, and communities with disabilities. He is a Latino Chiricahua Apache, Two Spirits who has Autism and Bipolar Disorder. He works with county, state, national organizations, and policy makers to create legislation to reduce mental health disparities, especially for racial and ethnic communities. He previously served and is now an emeritus member of the Los Angeles County Mental Health Commission. Hector is on the board of Directors for Disability Rights California and is the chair for the PAIMI (Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act) Advisory Council.