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  • CHOICE Staff

May is Mental Health Awareness Month

There’s not a lot of negative perception – stigma – heaped on a hit and run victim. Most of us are unlikely to demand the injured party “stop bleeding.” Yet patients with a mental health diagnosis say it’s common for co-workers, bosses, even loved ones, to tell them to “snap out of” a brain disorder.

It wouldn’t be easy; what human being is capable of exerting control over chemicals ranging from adrenaline and dopamine, to serotonin and norepinephrine?

“One in five Iowans will experience a mental health challenge this year, 137,000 Iowans live with chronic and serious mental illness,” said Peggy Huppert, Executive Director of the Iowa chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Most of those people work and have families.”

Someone hurt on the street might give themselves first aid; they see something is wrong, and with certain wounds, control bleeding by applying pressure. Conversely, a person with a mental illness may take 10 years to realize something is medically wrong.

A bandage won’t help; even with a psychiatric professional on the patient’s team, finding the perfect combination of therapy, lifestyle and medication to help is a slow process.

Too much, or too little, brain chemical in anyone’s body can easily force sudden personality changes, many of which are unpleasant for the patient and people around them. That may lead to finger pointing, wanting to blame someone for symptomatic behaviors beyond their control. says even some patients will point the finger at themselves, not their illness, “confusing feeling bad with being bad.” Or they’ll look upon a chemical imbalance as being a possible personality flaw: Maybe I’m a jerk. Maybe I’m just an impulsive spender. Maybe I’m just lazy. Uneducated friends or bosses may come up with similar misconceptions: “If you were stronger, you could get out of bed”, or “stop acting so weird.”

On the other hand, under the same chemical misfire, even those who look down on people with mental illness would quickly find themselves lacking the control they have under everyday circumstances.

But when successfully treated, or when backed up by a therapist or a supported employment professional, you may not notice a medical problem at all.

“They may work in the cubicle next to yours or volunteer as your son’s baseball coach,” Huppert explained to CHOICE bloggers this month.

According to the web resources at, those experiencing mental health conditions “often face rejection, bullying and discrimination.” Finding and keeping a job can be extremely difficult. Yet, a good employer can aid an employee on their road to recovery by working around their limitations and focusing on their strengths.

For the person with a mental health disability, having a routine and maintaining self-esteem makes employment an important part of life.“That doesn’t mean that sometimes help and support aren’t needed to be successful,” said Huppert. “That starts with a better understanding and awareness of mental illness, which is the point of Mental Health Awareness Month.”

Part II: The mental health unemployment issue should resolve itself

If people were being logical, they could forget about stigma and focus on success.

On paper, the numbers add up nicely: With employers crying out for workers, it’s logical to hire people in a largely untapped pool of employees. People with disabilities are waiting for jobs. You’d think the two problems would resolve each other: We need workers, they need work.

CHOICE Employment Services has successfully placed consumers who have a mental health diagnosis and is experienced in providing the support to help those consumers become independent at their job. But nationwide, this is a population that struggles to find work.

People with disabilities desperately want work.

NAMI's report, Road to Recovery: Employment and Mental Illness (, highlights model programs nationally and proposes model legislation for states. One option is for a state to focus on Individual Placement and Support (IPS). This is something that CHOICE specializes in. CHOICE has a proven track record of finding the right job for the skillset of that individual which leads to employers filling positions with long-term employees.

"NAMI wants (US) states to make a commitment to help people with mental illness to recover," said NAMI Executive Director Mary Giliberti. "Work is a critical part of recovery. As a nation, we still have a long way to go in recognizing that linkage."

It has less to do with salary than self-esteem.

"Work is tied to a person's sense of identity, dignity and worth in our society,” said the national director. “Even during the recession, the national unemployment rate paled next to what people in the public mental health system routinely experience. We must do better."

With the right support, says Carrie Dahlquist of CHOICE Employment Services, “anyone can work.” CHOICE provides direct support via job coaches for employees with a variety of disabilities, including emotional and mental health disorders. They work in a real-world setting, improving their skills and becoming more independent while being guided by a job coach.

Iowa businesses are desperate for workers

Iowa’s unemployment rate hovers around 4 percent. During the recession, it was closer to 7 percent. Yet among those Iowans with a mental health diagnosis, the unemployment rate approaches 70 percent. It’s even less logical when we consider what’s been called Iowa’s “unique” employment problem: We have too many jobs and are desperate for people to do them.

An article from the website of the World Economic Forum said research shows more inclusive companies “are twice as likely to have higher total shareholder returns than their peers, on average … When it comes to profitability and value creation, these companies achieved 28% higher revenue.”

A different article, this one in the NY Times, contained an interview with an Iowa businessman. “We’ve run out of people for jobs,” said Christopher E. Nelson, chief executive of Kemin Industries, an agricultural company. At the Des Moines headquarters, there are dozens of positions to fill. “Everything from Ph.D.-level scientists down to factory workers,” Mr. Nelson said.

If you think people on disability don’t want jobs, think again, a NAMI press release reports: their studies show 60 percent of the people receiving public mental health services nationwide want to work. Currently only 2 percent receive supported employment opportunities.

What exactly is mental health stigma?

One definition of stigma is when someone views people in a negative way because they have a mental health condition. Some people describe stigma as shame that can be felt as a judgement from someone, or even from the majority of society. Clearly, stigmatizing mental illness or those who have it isn’t benefiting the work world.

Navigating life with a mental health condition can be tough, and the isolation, blame and secrecy it encourages may create resistance to reaching out. That makes it nearly impossible to get needed support.

Learning how to cope with, avoid and address stigma are important for us all, whether employee, employer or member of the community.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, wear green and have conversations about mental health! Some of the following resources could prove helpful any time of year.

Information HelpLine is an info and referral service which can be reached by calling 1 (800) 950-NAMI (6264), Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.- 6 p.m., EST.

To contact CHOICE Employment Services, call 563-382-4056

NAMI Crisis or Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800) 273-TALK

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