Introduction to 'Work Is Recovery': True stories of real people who benefit from Supported Employment

—by Paul M. Kubek, Nicole Clevenger, Patrick E. Boyle

(Editor's note: This story originally appeared in "Work Is Recovery: True stories of real people who benefit from Supported Employment, the evidence-based practice," a booklet which was published in March 2007. View the "Work Is Recovery" PDF.)

Cleveland, OH—Work Is Recovery is a collection of stories about people who want to work. Those who are featured have all been diagnosed at some point in their lives with a mental disorder (mental illness). Many have struggled with symptoms for a long time and have left previous jobs or delayed pursuing a career because of their symptoms. So, the stories describe some hard times. Yet, more importantly, the stories also chronicle the triumphs of recovery and the importance of employment in supporting the journey.

The people in these stories have all found work in a competitive job of their choice in local communities throughout the State of Ohio with help from mental health and vocational rehabilitation service providers who use Supported Employment (SE), the evidence-based practice. SE is different from traditional vocational programs because it utilizes rapid job-search and placement services as well as time-unlimited individualized follow-along services, among other components (learn more). When we refer to competitive employment, we mean a job that pays at least minimum wage that anyone may apply for. No sheltered workshops. No pre-job training programs. We’re talking real jobs with employers who are in the business of making money in the marketplace.

Optimism & Other Positive Attitudes

Many of the successes in the following stories occurred because the people who are featured sought or received help from family members, service providers, and employers who have a positive attitude about them and do not stigmatize mental illness. Stigma is the act of labeling someone as an outcast, as not normal: it creates an us-versus-them relationship. Stigma produces experiences of separation and isolation, which create very difficult feelings such as embarrassment and shame. What makes the experience of mental illness stigmatizing in contemporary culture is due, in part, to a general lack of understanding about it. Therefore, we hope this collection of stories contributes to the national effort to transform stigmatizing beliefs into public awareness, acceptance, and advocacy.

There are many categories of mental illness and, thus, many identifiable symptoms. Yet, symptoms may be understood in general terms as feelings, thoughts, perceptions, and behaviors. Symptoms may be mild, moderate, or severe, and they may be temporary, periodic, or persistent. We are using this everyday language intentionally to make this point. Mental health and mental illness are a part of our collective human experience: the potential for both co-exists in each of us continuously.

Here is another important point to remember. Symptoms may or may not impair our abilities to take care of ourselves and our family members, to maintain relationships with others, and to achieve and maintain personal goals like employment with success and satisfaction. However, severe and persistent symptoms that remain untreated often do. Supported Employment is an effective form of treatment.

A Focus On Personal Strengths

We have learned from those who were interviewed for these stories that people who support mental health recovery relate to those in need as people with feelings, thoughts, perceptions, talents, and skills and not as a diagnosis, “the ill”, “the disabled”, or any other stigmatizing category that sets them apart from other members of their families and communities. Effective supporters also do not dwell upon the negatives—namely, the limitations that symptoms sometimes impose. Instead, they work with limitations in such a way that accommodates and transforms them. The same seems to be true about employers who support recovery. They appear to have an intuitive positive outlook about people and their desires and abilities to work. In addition, they make the effort to collaborate with Supported Employment specialists and to make accommodations (often very minor accommodations) to maximize employee satisfaction and productivity.

Having positive support from other people is not unique to the experience of mental health recovery and Supported Employment services; however, it is especially important not to overlook its crucial role in recovery, as well as in everyday life. No one is successful at work single-handedly, not even entrepreneurs and other business owners. Each of us relies upon others—coworkers, colleagues, family members, and friends—to vent emotion, to brainstorm, to problem solve, to strategize, to share the stories of our successes, to do our jobs well.

Self-Determination: Making Money

Every person featured in these stories wants to work, because he or she has found within himself or herself the need to work. For some, there is simply a conscious need to get out of the house. For others, there is a conscious need to invest time, attention, and energy away from symptoms and into problems that need to be solved elsewhere. And for all, there is a need not to be consumed by an identity of illness. There is also the need to exercise self-determination in the marketplace—that is, to make money, to pay bills, and to buy stuff. A competitive job fulfills these needs. Those who have jobs know that symptoms and illness do not define who they are. There is a healthy self: the accomplishments of work prove it.

Relationships That Inspire

Research shows that evidence-based Supported Employment (SE) services produce good outcomes when service providers completely integrate its core components into their day-to-day practices. SE is most productive when employers, clients of mental health services, and their family members do not feel as if they are participating in a special program but, rather, are simply collaborating with each other toward a common goal—that is, to make sure that potential employees find and keep the jobs they want and that employers find and keep the productive employees they need to operate a successful business. SE is effective because its core principles encourage professional behavior that produces a social environment which enables everyone involved—service providers, employers, consumers, family members—to build safe, trusting, long-term relationships. It is these relationships that promote and support positive personal change. And it is the accumulation of these personal changes that creates large-scale social transformation over time. Every individual counts.

We invite you to invest your creativity and passion in the cause of recovery. 

The "Work Is Recovery" Stories

Paul M. Kubek, MA, is director of communications at the Center for Evidence-Based Practices at Case Western Reserve University; Nicole Clevenger, BFA, is SE consultant and trainer at the Center, and Patrick E. Boyle, MSSA ('89), LISW-S, LICDC, is director of implementation services at the Center. Sarah Swanson, MRC, LSW, CRC, of the New Hampshire-Dartmouth Psychiatric Research Center also contributed to this story. The Center for Evidence-Based Practices at Case Western Reserve University is a partnership between the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case and the Department of Psychiatry at the Case School of Medicine.