October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). This year’s theme is “America’s Workforce: Empowering All.” The latest government figures put the U.S. unemployment rate at 3.7%, the lowest level in decades. But according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), nearly four million Americans with mental illness who would like to work are unemployed. Millions more work part-time and/or at very low wages.
“JFCS Career Development Center recognized a void in services for young adults with mental health challenges and autism,” said Sarah Welch, JFCS Career Development Center Director. “They have great skills and education but were not finding skilled employment.”
Edward was one of those young adults. This is his story…
I struggled for many years with anxiety that had not been properly diagnosed or treated. My anxiety caused me to worry excessively. At work, the smallest criticism would convince me I was about to be fired, and this led to declining performance. As a result, my employment record was very spotty.
Even after my anxiety was properly treated, I bounced from job to job. I was never able to find the right fit, even though I had both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and was strongly motivated. After being let go from yet another job, I spent more than a year trying to find a job on my own. The more time that passed, the more outdated my resume became, and I was afraid I would never work again. I didn’t have the right connections, and when I did get an interview my anxiety made it difficult for me to perform well.
I came to the CDC seeking general job search help, but received so much more. I began meeting regularly with an EmployAble career counselor who is also a licensed therapist. Together we explored both my career goals and the pervasive fears that were holding me back. On the career side, we polished my resume, practiced interview questions, and made connections with employers. At the same time, we addressed my fears about never working. Gradually I built up my confidence and optimism and learned to dismiss the negative thoughts. Through EmployAble I received an OVR evaluation. Because of my mental health diagnosis I was referred to work in tandem with other agencies that had experience with my “invisible disability.”
This cross agency collaboration provided the break that I needed. I was able to get a long-term contract at a large company. Despite many bumps along the road, I was successful in the temp job, and learned to control my anxiety about work. A few weeks after the contract position ended, the company offered me a permanent position, where I am now a valued, successful employee with growth opportunities. Seeing how far I have come, it’s hard to imagine that I used to believe I would never work again.
I continued to meet with my CDC career counselor and develop more skills to help me keep my job long term, something I had struggled with. Based on what I have learned, I am now in more control of my emotions and my work is no longer a major stress in my life.
Edward’s story is one example of the work being done to support individuals with mental illness. With support from United Way of Southwestern PA, the initiative to help address the needs of this unique population was launched in 2014 by the JFCS Career Development Center. Career counselors with therapeutic backgrounds and education were hired to work one-on-one to help people with “invisible disabilities” better navigate the job search, make meaningful connections to employers, and provide soft skills training to help them understand office professionalism and workplace etiquette.
After six years of success, United Way of Southwestern PA asked JFCS Career Development Center to take the program to scale and create more avenues to disability inclusion in the workplace. One avenue of expansion came in 2017 by establishing partnerships with Duquesne University and Point Park University. These collaborative efforts focus on developing strong relationships between the career services office and the disability resource center.
“Working with Point Park University and Duquesne University, we have been able to take our program that focuses on helping young adults with mental health challenges and autism and build on the university’s strong programming that already exists,” said Erin Barr, one of the career counselors at JFCS Career Development Center. “It is evident that both these schools care about their students and their students’ successes.”
Both universities have embraced the program and worked diligently to create an atmosphere where JFCS Career Development Center and the administration, staff, and students feel like they can use the program to foster greater student success.
“We are learning that professors and staff recognize the need for further training. There has been a very positive reception of the on-site case consultation and group training that we provide,” added Kaitlyn Myers-Brooks, another JFCS staff Career Counselor.
“As the program expands and changes, we still feel it is most important to focus on the individual and their goals,” said Welch. “Clients who come to us from Duquesne University, Point Park University or any other avenue will always receive the same level of compassionate service. Our goal is to see people secure meaningful jobs that they can retain long term.”
JFCS Career Development Center also works to connect job seekers to employers through career fairs. On October 30, JFCS Career Development Center will host the second annual Career Transitions Fair in partnership with United Way’s 21andAble initiative.
“The Career Transitions Fair is a great opportunity for clients dealing with invisible disabilities or mental health challenges,” said Chris Rippee, JFCS Career Development Center Career Counselor. “The stress around disclosure can be significant, as many clients fear that doing so might negatively impact their chances of getting a job. This is a fair where the recruiters are already aware that the candidates are dealing with invisible disabilities and actively interested in recruiting them. The immediate stress reduction and warm reception is hugely beneficial to our clients.”
If you are interested in services or participating in the Career Transitions Career Fair, please call JFCS Career Development Center at 412-422-5627.
By Sarah C. Welch and Iris Valanti