By Barbara L. Mitchell, MSW
Executive Director, Interim Inc.
About 80% of adults with serious mental illness (SMI) were unemployed in 2012, according to federal data. A report by NAMI, “Road to Recovery: Employment and Mental Illness” published in July 2014 noted, “The low rate of employment among working age adults with Serious Mental Illness was attributed to a combination of problems related to federal and state policies, as well as workplace-specific issues and employer willingness to provide reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities.”
Other issues are that people with mental illness may be unwilling to risk losing essential public benefits such as MediCal and SSI, which are based on income and work status. But work is definitely beneficial for mental health. Having some form of meaningful activity helps people to have a feeling of self-worth and helps with social integration.
For some people with serious mental illness, volunteering can be both a road to employment as well as a means of improving community integration. It can help people to gain a different identity, as well as helping them make friends. Not only can it help people with mental illness to gain confidence, but also to learn new skills and have them “try out” different work, to see what they enjoy doing.
According to the Harvard Medical School Health Blog, October 2015, “Studies have shown that volunteering helps people who donate their time feel more socially connected, thus warding off loneliness and depression. But surprisingly, volunteering has positive implications that go beyond mental health. A growing body of evidence suggests that people who give their time to others might also be rewarded with better physical health—including lower blood pressure and a longer lifespan.”
At Interim, people with mental illness are encouraged to try both employment and volunteer work. At our recent Mental Health Awareness Banquet on May 3rd, Interim recognized over r 100 agency consumer volunteers.
Interim strongly believes in employment for mental health consumers. There are over 50 mental health consumers employed by Interim in agency operations, and services. Consumers work in treatment programs, homeless services and full-service partnerships. They provide connection and positive models for people working towards recovery. Our partnership with Monterey County Behavioral Health (MCBH) has Interim wellness navigators working in MCBH out-patient clinics to provide assistance with transportation and outreach to clients.
Many of Interim’s volunteers gain valuable experience that then helps them move to paid employment. I remember that Kontrena McPheter, Interim’s Peer Outreach and Advocacy Coordinator once complained to me that some of her best Success Over Stigma (SOS) speakers kept getting employed and were then not as available for community speaking engagements. Although inconvenient for Kontrena and the SOS program, it is positive for the volunteers who wanted to move into paid employment!
We owe a debt of gratitude to the many mental health consumers who help to make Interim a strong community resource by using their knowledge, skills and passion to help others.