Working Toward Employment:  A Journey of Growth and Support

by Nancy Harvey, CEO of SPOP

As a young woman Lisa was told that she would never work.  She suffers from serious mental illness and has experienced multiple traumas during her lifetime.  Now 59 years old, she lives in a supportive group home and is a participant in the Personalized Recovery Oriented Services (PROS) program at SPOP, where she receives group-based rehabilitation support, medication management, and other services for older adults with serious mental illness.  She has never worked, and her goal is to enter the workforce before she turns 60.

One of the defining features of the PROS model is a belief that we all have the capacity to dream and aspire toward personal goals at any age.  For an older adult with serious mental illness, a goal can be anything – to make a friend, reconnect with family, move to an independent apartment, find a part-time job, quit smoking, or exercise more.  We have assembled a diverse treatment team comprised of social workers, create arts therapists, psychiatry, a peer specialist, and counselors who work collaboratively with each person to support goal acquisition.  Most importantly, we encourage participants to be in the “driver’s seat” at every step, making decisions, identifying barriers, and charting their own course.

The vast majority of the participants in our PROS program have little or no experience in the workplace, and when they express a goal of earning money they know that they face multiple challenges, including age discrimination, their history of mental illness, and limited skills.  Notwithstanding these barriers, some 15-20% of our program participants have set a goal of finding a job.

A key member of our treatment team is an employment specialist, who conducts groups on skills building, social interaction in the workplace, technology, the job application process, and strategies for success.  For many of our participants, this may be the first time in many years – or ever – that they are pursuing employment, and we let them take their time to explore ideas and provide emotional support for one another.  Working within the group, participants use tablets to familiarize themselves with technology, search for employment opportunities, prepare resumes and correspondence, and explore community resources and training programs.

When Lisa first came to PROS her main goal was to live with greater independence.  She has learned about her medication and symptom management and has acquired new skills for self-expression and advocacy.   She has also worked on coping skills for anxiety and depression.  Last year she joined our Employment Group, where she has learned about different opportunities to pursue part-time employment. 

Lisa recently decided that she would like to work as a home health aide, stating that she has seen first-hand how the power of helping care for others has supported her own recovery.  The employment specialist helped her to enroll in a no-cost training program specifically for people with serious mental illness, and as she approaches completion of her training our staff is in touch with a network of community partners and employers that offer a safe and supportive work environment where she will be able to thrive.

This has been a long journey for Lisa.  Our group-based model has allowed her to develop diverse skills over time, all of which are now coming together.  For instance, our “Rising Above It All” group, on disability education services, has helped her to recognize behaviors and symptoms associated with trauma, such as difficulty trusting others and diminished interest in activities.  Our staff has worked with her to strengthen her skills needed to deal with emotional responses that may erupt in the workplace by practicing social interaction, de-escalation skills, and grounding techniques.  Groups have also allowed her to overcome her natural shyness and form empathic and supportive relationships with fellow participants, members of her treatment team, and her church community.

SPOP’s mission is built around the premise that people can grow and change at any age. Lisa is just one example of our clients who show us that neither age nor behavioral health challenges preclude their ability to vision and manifest new goals.  Given our status as the only provider of older adult recovery and rehabilitation services in New York State, SPOP feels privileged to play a vital role in supporting older adults who are our clients, participants, or neighbors and friends – and in helping them create their own pathway to success.

This story was published in the Winter 2024 issue of Behavioral Health News

photo courtesy of the Centre for Ageing Better

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