Thursday, January 13, 2011

Working for pride. Thursday, January 13, 2011.

“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Yesterday I talked to a young woman who was thrilled to be pushing a broom.

Kristina has a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. Before she went into treatment, she said, she had never worked at any job for more than a couple of weeks. Her delusions would get in the way of basic functioning, and she’d either be fired or quit.

She wound up on disability and SSI, but that process took almost two years. She had no access to medication, counseling or treatment of any kind, since in the U.S., these “privileges” usually come attached to full-time employment. In the meantime, she found herself on the streets, turning tricks for the most basic necessities. “It was horrible,” she told me. “If I was still living like that, I’d be dead.”

Unemployment in the United States is still pushing 10 percent (and total unemployment is approaching Great Depression levels). But the unemployment rate for people with mental illness is 90 percent.

Ninety percent.

In a place like America with so few social safety nets, and no health insurance for the unemployed and for part-time workers, that is a sobering figure. A huge number of these people wind up on relatives’ couches (if they’re fortunate) or on the streets (if they’re not).

Unemployment and mental illness tend to feed off each other. Extreme mood changes, delusions and hallucinations, or confusion can make it difficult to do most jobs, or even to get the kind of education or training needed for a basic job. On the flip side, the stress of losing a job often triggers severe anxiety and depression.

People who are unemployed also have a suicide rate twice as high as those who are unemployed.

But there are little spots of hope, and one of them is The Hope House, which offers a gathering place for people with mental illness, and a variety of services including supported employment. I went there yesterday to write a story on it, and I was shown quite the welcome.

The Hope House – located in a renovated Victorian – is a place where people can hang out without experiencing stigma or judgment. They can talk about mental illness without worrying about what someone will say. They can have a sandwich, play a game of bridge or pool, watch a video. And they can work with counselors who can connect them with jobs and provide the occupational and psychological help some need in order to stay at a job long-term.

For Kristina, “long-term” means over a year now. This is huge. The longest she’d ever stayed at a job in the past was less than a month. “I’m on medication and I’m feeling a lot better now,” she says. “I’m not hearing voices anymore and I can go to work … I like my job a lot. It’s only a few hours a week but that’s OK. I get to see people and I like to make things clean. I like to keep busy, you know?”

I speak to Ken, her counselor at The Hope House. He says that at one point, more than half the members there had jobs through their supported employment program. That figure is down to one-third because of the Recession. “We really hope it changes soon,” he says. “Most of these people are surviving on (Disability) payments of $600 a month. You can’t even rent an apartment on that.”

Things aren’t easy for Kristina. She considers herself extremely lucky to be working at a janitor two days a week, to be getting a disability check, and to finally be receiving medication. But she has to rent a small one-room apartment with another girl, and there is still virtually no money for “extras.”

But she has something today that she considers priceless – a feeling of pride. “When I was sleeping with guys for money, you know, and I didn’t have anywhere to stay, I thought about wanting to die,” Kristina told me. “When I go to work and clean things and talk to people, it makes me feel good to be here.”

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