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Reintegration & Recovery >> Employment
Finding Meaningful Work
Helpful Ideas from an Expert
Ralph Bilby, Program Director of the International Center for Clubhouse Development (ICCD), knows the critical importance of a good job for persons with persistent mental illness. He says, "I love what Ralph Aquila (Director of The Center for Reintegration) tells people, that employment isn't the most important thing - it's the only thing. The number one dream of people with mental illness in terms of breaking free from the bonds of their illness, the poverty associated with it, and the embarrassment and stigma of it is to be able to go to work."
One reason, of course, is to make the money for necessities, such as a decent place to live. But the drive for work goes far deeper. For most people, a "real job" helps provide meaning to life. This is true for everyone, not just those with mental illness.
But too often people in recovery face barriers to finding and maintaining a good job - barriers created by themselves as well as others. Common feelings include:
While these barriers are real, they can be overcome. This is especially true with the recent advances in medications for treating schizophrenia and related conditions. Persons with mental illness can find meaningful work and form relationships with the thousands of employers who want to actively help solve social problems. These employers are natural partners for the mentally ill job seeker willing to look for them.
- A serious lack of confidence
- The fear of recurring episodes of illness
- A sense of being too far behind to catch up
- A stigma regarding serious mental illness that, unfortunately, still exists in the workplace, and
10 Important Ideas for Finding and Maintaining Meaningful Employment
Finally, here are some practical tips as you look for a job:
- Don't Be Afraid to Try - The first step is, as the famous sneaker slogan says, to "Just Do It". You need to recognize that while there is an element of risk in anything important that we try, the reward for taking that risk can be great indeed.
- Find - and Actively Work With - a "Rehabilitation Partner" - A "rehabilitation partner" is an organization which helps persons with mental illness develop the resources needed for recovery and reintegration. This includes preparing for, getting, and keeping a meaningful job. Clubhouses are an excellent example. A Clubhouse is an organization - and a physical place - which creates an ongoing partnership between its members (persons with mental illness) and a team of mental health and other professionals. There are nearly 400 such Clubhouses around the world. They can provide Transitional Employment programs, give you good job leads, provide job-seeking assistance for Independent Employment, and link you with financial and other resources to improve your education and job skills. Clubhouses provide truly comprehensive and integrated support services to their members, each of whom holds a lifetime membership in the organization. "Rehabilitation partners" such as Clubhouses also provide critical emotional and motivational support when it's needed.
- Position Yourself for the Best Chance at Getting Meaningful Work - In today's competitive job market, you'll need the right qualifications. Put some active "sweat equity" into your future by getting more education and training in the skills which will help you get the kind of job you want. Consider doing volunteer work to improve your skills (and build your confidence) while you are searching for paid employment. Clubhouses can help you find places to get additional education and training - and can even help you find financial resources to pay for additional schooling. (Note: If you go back to school, you may want to start by taking only one class at a time until you have built up your confidence.)
- Optimize Your Health - Good health is one of your most important assets in the recovery process. It can help you find a good job - and keep that job. There are many ways to take care of both your body and your spirit.
- Develop Excellent Work Habits - Once you've found work, commit yourself to doing the best possible job you can. Try to make yourself invaluable - if you take care of your employer, your employer will most likely take care of you.
- Be Persistent. Never give up! Don't expect to get the first job for which you apply; keep looking hard until you find one that's right for you. Expect some setbacks and rejections along the way - remember that there is still a stigma attached to mental illness on the part of some employers. Persistence is also called for if you encounter obstacles created by government regulations. For instance, if your benefits are challenged based on limited paid work you find, appeal that decision (a Clubhouse can offer you help in this).
- Look at Your Employment Search as a Long-term Learning Process - Don't be afraid to go through several jobs before finding one that truly meets your needs. Remember two important things: (1) For everyone, with or without a mental illness, some failure is acceptable - it's the way we learn; and (2) Be sure to really learn from each of your failures (as well as from your successes).
- Be Willing to Trust - Trust is a two-way street. You must first be willing to trust both your "rehabilitation partner" (such as the staff at a Clubhouse) and the potential employer. It's sometimes hard to trust, but the rewards are very much worth the risk. And you must also get an employer to trust you, by doing quality work. As Ralph Bilby says, "It's all about trust, which must be earned."
- Take It One Step at a Time - Recognize that things won't all come together overnight. What you are doing is creating a series of steps which will ultimately lead you to the job - and the better life - you want. Improving your skills, working through several jobs, becoming completely familiar with how the working world does things - these steps all build on themselves over time. It's a total process that can take a while. Patience is one of your best allies.
- Recognize - and Celebrate - Your Successes - Cherish every victory, no matter how small, on your road to recovery and reintegration. Remember that the grass isn't always greener elsewhere - and be glad for each job you are allowed to do and each employer with whom you develop a relationship. Every victory should be a cause for celebration with those who helped you achieve it, such as your family, your friends, and your "rehabilitation partner."
- Develop a resume that shows potential employers what you can do for them. (Your "rehabilitation partner" can help you with this.)
- Contact all Clubhouses and mental health advocates that may know of potential job opportunities.
- Tell anyone you may be using as a job reference to be aware that potential employers may be calling them.
- Before going to a job interview, learn as much as you can about the company.
- Make a list of your best skills and traits ("dependable", "always punctual", etc.) for use in a job interview. During the interview, focus on the skills you already have and the successes you've created in previous jobs.
- Always be on time for your job interviews. (It's actually best to be there 5 -10 minutes early.)
- Be sure to wear clean clothes to the interview, and dress in clothes that would be appropriate for the job you hope to get.
- Take a list to the job interview with important information you'll need for the written application (Social Security Number, references, important phone numbers and addresses, your job history, and so forth).
- Immediately after your job interview, send a note to the interviewer thanking him or her for taking time to speak with you, and for considering you for the position.
- With meaningful work, other victories become more possible. Ralph Bilby perhaps brings this home best. "I am constantly reminded," he says, "of a favorite saying from a member of the Genesis Club in Worcester, Massachusetts: 'If I have a job, I have a chance.'"