job interview sticky note

Jobs for People With Mental Illness

Note: The sources for this post are,,, “When Someone You Love Has a Mental Illness” by Rebecca Woolis and my own experience working for a program that linked jobs to people with mental illness.

Families of people with mental illness frequently pin much hope on their loved ones getting jobs. It can even become almost a fixation. “If he would just get a job …” There’s often hope that a job will lead to more stability, but it usually has to be the other way.

Unfortunately, many people with mental illness are too ill to function in the workplace. They lose job after job, not because they are difficult, but because they are too ill.

However, once a person is on a treatment plan, symptoms can reduce. Increased stability makes it more possible for the person to have a positive work experience. Others can never deal with the stress of a full-time job, which can make symptoms worse. But they may be able to work part-time or on a volunteer basis, instead.

What the Law Says

As we said previously, the lack of sufficient funding for people with mental illness has a big impact on their families. There’s not enough money to hire enough case managers, social workers and vocational counselors. So families often have to get involved to ensure the system works for their loved one.

The first step to getting involved is understanding what the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says. And what it does not say.

Most government regulations define an individual with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more life activities: walking, talking, hearing, seeing, learning, performing manual tasks, caring for oneself, thinking, concentrating and interacting with others. This applies to most people with severe and persistent mental illness.

Title 1 of the ADA covers private employers with 15+ employees, state and local governments, services funded by the government, labor unions and employment agencies. It prohibits them from discriminating against qualified individuals who have disabilities in hiring, firing, advancement, etc. The law does not cover employers with less than 15 employees.

The law says employers may not ask prospective employees about the existence, nature or severity of a disability. What they can do is ask about the prospective employee’s abilities to do the job. (Remember: The law protects qualified people with disabilities.) And none of this applies if the person has an active substance abuse problem.

The ADA requires that employers provide reasonable accommodation to the known mental limitations of an individual with a mental disability unless it would impose an undue hardship on the employer’s business. Undue hardships are due to significant difficulty or expense to the employer based on size, financial resources, etc. 

Reasonable accommodations include job restructuring, part time or modified work schedules, reassignment to a vacant job position, and modification of training materials.

The ADA also impacts colleges and universities. It can require them to restructure exams and materials. Many universities and colleges have offices for disabled students that help them get reasonable accommodations.

Returning to Work Gradually

One pathway to returning to working is to move through a system that gradually requires more responsibility and work skills. This can mean starting as a volunteer in an organization with tasks and required hours.

Then, if this works, vocational rehabilitation counselors can help the person find supportive employment, maybe even part-time. In supportive employment, the employer knows that the worker has a mental illness under treatment. This helps the employer to understand if problems arise and to contact the vocational counselor.

Finally, once a person has the workplace skills and dependability needed, they can get a job.

Getting a Job in Ohio

Since I have lived and worked in Ohio, it is the system I know. Other states’ systems may vary.

The Ohio Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation provides people with disabilities the services and support to get and keep jobs. The bureau’s staff does these things:

  • Evaluation and treatment of an individual’s disability
  • Information and referral services
  • Vocational counseling and training
  • Job search and job placement assistance
  • Educational guidance (tuition resources and other support)
  • Transportation services
  • Occupational tools and equipment
  • Personal attendant services (reader, interpreter, etc.).

The bureau customizes its services for each person using assessments and one-on-one meetings with professional vocational rehabilitation counselors.

After an application is completed and submitted, an interview is scheduled between your loved one and a counselor. You or another friend or family member may accompany your loved one to the interview. A counselor will talk about career goals, work history, educational background, disability and the services necessary to reach an employment goal.

Eligibility for vocational rehabilitation services is based on four factors:

  • The individual has a physical, cognitive, or mental impairment documented by the appropriate qualified professional (doctor, psychologist or other).
  • The documented impairment causes a substantial impediment (barrier) to employment.
  • The person can benefit from vocational rehabilitation services that lead to an employment outcome.
  • The person requires vocational rehabilitation to prepare for, secure, retain or regain employment

The vocational counselor will be honest if they feel that your loved one is not ready for employment. How much you have to help your loved one with the meeting is a part of that, whether it is said or not. If your loved one can’t get up to go to the meeting or can’t answer the questions without your help, he or she is probably not yet ready for a job.

When your loved one is determined eligible for services, an Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE) is created with the counselor. The IPE is an agreement between your loved one and OOD describing services that will be provided according to your loved one’s choices. Your loved one may be responsible for some costs of the vocational rehabilitation plan, especially college tuition.

When your loved one is ready for employment, the counselor and other OOD staff will help them prepare for the job search. The counselor can offer information on accessing public transportation (if available in the community) or arranging for private transportation. The counselor also can help your loved one with job site modifications for accessibility and efficiency.

They also may be able to set up supportive employment, which can transition to a regular job where people are not told about the illness.

OOD also can help your loved one keep the job if they are having trouble working because of their disability. The counselor can work with your loved one and their employer to determine the services necessary.

In Columbus, Southeast Vocational Services, formerly COVA, is another vocational services program.  I served on the board of this organization, which works with everyone from people with PhDs to those with entry level skills.

Its Transitional Employment program or “Project Work” provides temporary employment to people with a history of severe and persistent mental illness and substance abuse disorders. People get up to 1,000 hours of paid employment services within a 12-month period with the goal of moving from transitional employment to permanent employment full or part-time.

Southeast also offers benefits counseling and re-entry support for people leaving prison. Call Southeast at (614) 294-7117 to ask about it.

Filling out applications

It’s best to work with a vocational counselor, social worker or case manager to fill out applications for jobs. Legally, your loved one only needs to elaborate on the diagnosis if it impacts the ability to do the job. Otherwise, they should not volunteer information about their medical history.

They should tell the truth about their employment history. (Again, this is where recent volunteer jobs can come in handy.) The counselor can help with good answers to explain the gaps in the history.

You can practice with your loved one as a coach for the interviews. They may be anxious and fearful, so a practice … even a dress rehearsal … helps. Help your loved one with the appropriate dress. You can fill out the applications together and make copies in case they get lost or damaged. You also can use relatives who have knowledge of the loved one’s level of responsibility for references. If your loved one has had volunteer experience, those individuals also may make great references.

Getting back into the work world can be a great challenge. If benefits are involved, be sure to learn what the impact will be. May God bless you and your loved one in this effort.