Hiring the person, not the mental illness

“Let’s just solve one problem at a time.”

Did you ever hear your mother say this while you were growing up? Perhaps you’ve said it to your own children.

In most cases, it may be helpful advice. However, St. Clair County Community Mental Health (SCCCMH) is throwing that advice out the window with its Employment Services programs. In partnership with local employers, these programs are helping to tackle two issues facing today’s workforce: the stigma against those with mental illness and the staffing shortage.

Chris Davis, Employment Specialist at St. Clair County Community Mental Health.The Employment Services programs consist of two programs: the Individual Placement and Support (IPS), which is a program for people with a mental illness who want to work; and Opportunities for Success (OFS), which is a program for people with a developmental or intellectual disability who want to work.

“Work is a huge part of our identity. When we look at what we do for a living, it often drives some sort of passion within us - whether it's a skill set, a hope, or a love,” says Chris Davis, Employment Specialist at SCCCMH. “It's a huge identifier for people and work has so much meaning, building confidence and building character. It's a journey in itself, and that's important for people.”

It was certainly important for 38-year-old Lisa Simpson, of Port Huron, who found her way to SCCCMH in the summer of 2020.

“I was originally from Flint and I came up here to be in sobriety,” Simpson says. “In order to do that I had some mental health issues that needed to be addressed. So, I checked into CMH and my social worker explained to me that they had an IPS program that could help me find a job that fits me.”

Lisa Simpson, before (left) and after recovery.

Her first job through the IPS program was in housekeeping, which she excelled at. Eventually, she was promoted to head housekeeper.

“It was a job that fit me because I like cleaning,” she says. “Cleaning takes me into another world – it helps me calm down. With my anxiety and depression, I like to clean when I get upset and nervous.”

When the time came that Simpson felt she was ready to move to a new job, Davis supported her throughout the process, helping Simpson successfully obtain a job she has held for nearly two years. Now, Davis is working with Lisa to help her become a peer recovery coach so she can help others on their sobriety and mental health journeys.

“They've been helping me reach my goals,” Simpson says. “They don't give up on me. They don't stand behind me. They don't stand in front of me. They're beside me all the time.”

Standing beside individuals to support their goals is a key component of the IPS and OFS programs, and it starts immediately when someone is referred to the program. When individuals enter the IPS program, an employment specialist works with them to first determine factors such as what experience they have, what type of work they would enjoy, or whether they have a criminal history – things that could impact where they look for employment.

From there, Davis and other employment specialists talk to employers to see what jobs they’re currently hiring for; and, sometimes employers call her to ask if she has anyone looking for specific positions. If she has a good fit for someone, she asks if they’re interested and if they want to disclose.

“They give us a release to step up to the employer and reveal that they're working with us and that they're interested,” Davis explains. “Sometimes my folks say, ‘No, I don't want to disclose, Chris.’ Then I guide them from behind the scenes.”
Erika Rice, Program Supervisor at St. Clair County Community Mental Health.
Progress works somewhat differently in the OFS program, explains Erika Rice, Program Supervisor at SCCCMH.

“Opportunities for Success uses discovery, which is a time period where the employment specialist works with them on what they really want because many of those individuals have never worked before,” she says. “Then we work with an employer to customize a position for that person that might be limited hours, maybe 10 to 15 hours a week.”

One thing that remains consistent in the two programs though is that both programs only place people in competitive employment instead of what they refer to as a sheltered workshop.

“A sheltered workshop is where the jobs are set aside for people with disabilities. They may not make minimum wage,” Rice explains. “In a competitive environment, anybody can apply for the job, and it's minimum wage or higher.”

Rice says benefits coaching is also offered to explain to individuals how their employment will impact their benefits such as food stamps, social security, or Medicaid.

“We're able to explain what happens to those benefits in a very detailed manner so that they're prepared for that change in the future, because when you go back to work many of those will either be reduced or eliminated,” she explains.

That support SCCCMH offers to individuals in its employment services programs continues after someone is hired, though – something that Kevin Daniel, President of Michigan Manufactured Products, says is helpful for both the employee as well as the employer.

“There are frequent visits from CMH. They'll pop in to see the people in action,” he says. “We try to identify if there are any pending issues or things that may come up. So, we really try to forge that relationship in the beginning because the ultimate goal here is success for everybody.”

Daniel has been involved with the IPS program for nearly 10 years, both hiring and helping conduct mock interviews for individuals seeking employment in various fields.

“CMH does a very good job as far as really trying to identify the employer’s needs and then identifying individuals to fill those needs,” he says.

Not only are individuals hired, but Rice says the program has good retention as well.

“In this last quarter, 75% of the people who got jobs maintained them … So, they did not quit or get released from their jobs,” she says. “They kept their job the entire quarter when they started.”

Daniel says hiring through the IPS program is a great way for employers to find quality employees, especially right now.

“There are a lot of wonderful people that truly - and this is key with people in the IPS program - want to work, so CMH and the IPS program try to open those doors for them,” Daniel says. “The contacts are out in the area, constantly knocking on doors, but it always comes back to breaking down that stigma that's often attached to these individuals that want to work.”

Both Rice and Davis said it can be challenging to face the stigma attached to mental illness. However, Rice says that, since she helped spearhead the IPS program in 2014, local employers have seen the benefits of the program and that has certainly helped.

“Every employer is hiring the person, not the mental illness,” she says. “They're hiring the person who has the skill set.”

In making local contacts, she has also seen community members open up about mental health and the impact it has on their lives.

“Many times when we're talking to an employer, they might tell us a story about their brother or their cousin with a mental health condition, and they love that this program is out there to help support them,” she says.

For Daniel, the key to breaking down the stigma is pretty simple.

“I think employers and their employees, they have to be human, right? That’s just what it comes down to is to be human, treat people with respect, dignity, and work with individuals.”

To learn more about St. Clair County Community Mental Health and other programs like these, visit scccmh.org.
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Read more articles by Gabrielle Haiderer.

Gabrielle "Gabe" Haiderer is passionate about sharing stories that show the positive interactions between individuals and businesses that occur every day in our communities - interactions that inspire hope and motivate community growth. She has used this passion to share stories through a variety of media outlets - from television to radio to traditional newspaper to digital news. When she's not writing, Gabe stays busy running her own videography and social media management business in Northern Michigan, caring for her two furkids (Watson the siamese cat and Holmes the Corgi), spending time with her husband, and tending her garden.