Community Treatment Assists Those with Mental Illness in Obtaining and Maintaining Employment

Community Updates

Article from Wausau Daily Herald. August 10, 2014

WAUSAU – The nation’s unemployment rate — currently 6.2 percent — is a statistic that gets plenty of scrutiny.

But it pales in comparison to 82 percent. That’s the U.S. unemployment rate among people with serious mental illnesses, according to a recent report from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. And five professionals at North Central Health Care in Wausau have dedicated themselves to turning those numbers around.

Most adults with mental illness want to work, according to the report, and six in 10 can succeed with the right support. But only 1.7 percent received supported employment services in 2012.

Christine Seidler, NCHC community treatment employment supervisor, and four employment specialists are working across Marathon, Lincoln and Langlade counties to help patients in NCHC’s mental health community treatment program find and hold jobs. The clients have a wide range of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.

Among them is a 22-year-old Wausau woman who’s now working part-time at a yogurt shop and 35-year-old client from Wausau who landed a custodial job in Weston, both of whom said the work has given them a new purpose and focus in life.

Retail and cleaning are just some of the types of jobs available to clients, Seidler said. Others include accounting and factory work. But Seidler said the common theme is that the jobs always are based on the client’s interests.

“We do (what we call) a career profile, and get to know that person,” Seidler said. “We get out in the community with them. What are their skills, what are their abilities, what is their dream job, how can we connect what they’re doing now to what their dream is?”

It’s a program based on a model of supported employment known as Individual Placement and Support started in 2001 by the Johnson & Johnson-Dartmouth Community Mental Health Program, which began as a pilot in three states and now is used in 14 states, including Wisconsin, along with the District of Columbia and Alameda County in California.

NCHC’s supported employment program was created in 2010 with a three-year, $110,000 grant from Johnson & Johnson-Dartmouth and is sustained through funding from Medicaid and the state’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Seidler said of the approximately 400 clients in NCHC’s community treatment services across the three counties, IPS employment serves about 75, and nearly 30 of those are currently employed.

Katie Walker of Wausau is one of them.

The 22-year-old Walker, who suffers from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, works five to six hours a week at Cherry Berry yogurt bar on Stewart Avenue, cleaning, stocking products and helping customers with the check-out process.

It’s a job she’s happy to have. “I like getting out and working,” Walker said. “It gives me something to do during the day so I’m not bored. It’s nice working for money instead of depending on Social Security.”

But Walker said there are challenges.

“There’s some difficulties with getting to work on time sometimes,” she said. “There’s difficulties in keeping relationships, so it’s hard to have good references.”

Pat Philipsek, operations manager at Cherry Berry, said one of the company’s goals is to provide a family-friendly atmosphere, and they’re willing to train employees to cultivate that, even if an employee has some limitations.

“It doesn’t make a difference to us; it depends on the person, how well they can interact with people,” Philipsek said.

Philipsek, who oversees operations at nine stores, said Cherry Berry has hired employees who have had difficulties holding jobs elsewhere, and it has worked out well for the company.

“I guess we’re a fairly straightforward business,” he said. “We don’t have a complicated point-of-sale system. So that’s where we are able to employ some people that we might otherwise not be able to.”

Seidler said evidence shows that those who obtain competitive employment have increased income, improved self-esteem, and are able to feel like they’re contributing members of their community. “The old theory used to be, ‘Oh, my gosh, they’re too ill to work, it’s going to increase their anxiety, it’s going to make them sicker and it’s going to cause them stress,’” Seidler said. “The evidence shows — and we’ve seen in the last four years — the exact opposite. We see decreased use of alcohol and substance (abuse), we see a decrease in symptoms, we see increase in self-esteem and hygiene.”

Wausau’s Matthew Paul, 35, who suffers from schizophrenia, landed his custodial job at the Woodson YMCA Aspirus Branch through the assistance of NCHC’s supported employment program.

He said holding down the job gives him some direction.

“It gives me some kind of purpose, being scheduled to work,” Paul said. “It keeps you busy. The money’s nice, too.”

Paul said the best part of the program is employment specialist Kari Pfender, the woman who helped him get the job.

“She’s the one that got out there and found a job for me to do,” Paul said. “Without her help, it wouldn’t have been possible.”

Walker also had positive things to say about her job coach, Karissa Nelson. “She’s helped me find a job and she helped me keep my job,” Walker said of Nelson. “She’s always been there if I had any problems. She’s basically my go-to person for work and work-related stuff. She’s my transportation for job hunting. She’s been a great help, been a reference on all my applications, always put in a good word for me. It’s hard to find a job in this city without great references.”

That type of work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Seidler said the team — Michelle Carr and Tera Nicholson are the other employment specialists — recently was recognized by their peers in Wisconsin with a best-practices award for their collaboration with the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation in helping mentally ill clients obtain employment in their communities.

Bob Dohr, Daily Herald Media