When I first started working at Western New York Independent Living, I was one of "the working poor." But since then, I've worked hard, received promotions and salary increases and now own my own home and support my beloved greyhound. In other words, I control my life.
That wasn't always the case. I've been homeless, been in the hospital 13 times for psychiatric illness and have been declared unemployable.
During a five-year period when I wasn't working, I worried I'd never work again. It was stressful dealing with government red tape to receive a disability check, food stamps and health insurance. It was stressful dealing with slumlords who wouldn't turn up the heat in the winter or fumigate the apartment for cockroaches. I had nothing to do on the days I wasn't in mental health treatment. I lived on Ramen noodles.
Now the only government reporting I do is my income tax, and I can pay someone to do that for me. I now have health insurance that's accepted almost everywhere in Erie County, so I can choose who treats my mental health and physical care needs. Best of all, I have a place to go during the week, and no matter how tough the day is at work, it's still less stressful than being unemployed.
Recent reports indicate that more than 70 percent of people with mental health disabilities able to work are unemployed. What I can't understand is that if the U.S. unemployment rate, which at around 8 percent is considered too high, why isn't the jobless rate for those with serious mental health issues considered an unemployment epidemic?
The unfortunate truth is that too many people believe that those of us with serious mental illnesses cannot - or should not - work. For that 70 percent, there is no expectation of work.
I believe successful employees need three skills: 1) show up, 2) be on time and 3) don't steal. If job seekers can keep their appointments when undergoing mental health treatment, why wouldn't they keep an appointment with an employer? I also don't see a rash of people with mental illnesses showing up late for appointments – or stealing things.
I've seen for myself that people with serious mental illnesses can work and contribute their talents and skills to their jobs. It may not always be a 40-hours-a-week job or a corporate position, but it is something of value. Yes, sometimes our symptoms flare and we may need to take a break, but that doesn't exclude us from working, volunteering and contributing to the community.
Many with mental illness fear it's too hard to transition from disability to employment. But there are work incentives and special programs to assist them in obtaining employment, volunteer opportunities and community involvement. They just have to say, "I want to work."
At Mental Health Peer Connection, we run two successful employment programs for people with mental health disabilities and people from poor economic backgrounds. We serve more than 500 people a year, and about one- third achieve their goal of employment
I've been where they are, and now that I'm working I totally control my life. If I can accomplish that, so can they.
Maura Kelley is a certified psychiatric rehabilitation practitioner and director of Mental Health Peer Connection.