Stigma surrounding mental
illness major barrier for employment
Ninety per cent of Canadians with serious
mental illnesses are unemployed due largely to prejudice about their
conditions -- a startling state of affairs that costs the Canadian
economy an estimated $50 billion a year, according to a sweeping new
The Aspiring Workforce report,
commissioned by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, delves into the
challenges facing those Canadians, targeting all levels of government,
businesses, policy-makers and the not-for-profit sector in addition to
the attitudes of Canadians themselves towards those who suffer from
Obtained by The Canadian Press, the
report -- conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the
University of Toronto and Queen's University -- recommends collaboration
among all sectors to find work for mentally ill Canadians, many of whom
have training and skills.
"This report represents hope, it really
does, for many people who are voiceless," Patrick Dion, vice-chairman of
the commission, said in an interview.
"It's astonishing that 90 per cent of
the mentally ill are unemployed. Our lives are a three-legged stool -- a
home, a job and a friend -- and so if that job leg isn't there, the
journey to recovery is made that much more difficult."
In its executive summary, the Aspiring
Workforce report urges a "national program of action to change this
situation. There are effective ways to increase employment; this is a
problem that has solutions."
It calls for early intervention, noting
that the longer someone spends away from the workforce, the more
difficult it is for them to get back to work.
It also urges governments to remove disincentives to return to work,
noting that those receiving disability payments often fear leaving those
programs because their financial situation might become precarious, and
could even worsen, by returning to work.
Dion calls that recommendation the most
crucial part of the report.
"Imagine getting into the paradox of
having employment programs that may provide you with your drug benefits
and care around your mental health, and they get clawed back because
you're making money that still leaves you marginally below the poverty
line," he said.
"If provincial governments across the
country were to move in unison to provide adaptability on those types of
programs, that would certainly provide a whole lot more hope and a whole
lot more employment."
The report, to be officially released
on Wednesday in the midst of a worldwide Mental Health Awareness Week,
also calls for stable funding for what's known as "best practices" --
programs that support the employment of the mentally ill.
Andrea Payne, a human resources manager
for 18 Tim Hortons franchises in Kingston, Ont., has first-hand
knowledge of how hiring and accommodating mentally ill employees has
benefited her employer, J.E. Agnew Food Services, a Tim Hortons
Payne has worked with community
organizations that include the Frontenac Community Mental Health and
Addictions Services to place many motivated employees over the past six
years. There's been no downside, she said in an interview.
"They're not just screened, they have
employment preparation," she said. "They come very prepared, they want
to work and they're very eager. The job is definitely party of their
recuperation ... it's a huge part of their recovery."
Many of the affected Canadians who
responded to a survey by the Aspiring Workforce researchers reported
that the stigma surrounding mental illness was a major barrier to their
return to the workforce.
"People are afraid," one survey
respondent said. "They don't understand (mental illness) and don't want
to be educated. They don't want to realize it is the same as diabetes or
In 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper
announced the creation of the non-profit Mental Health Commission of
Canada in response to a Senate committee that studied mental health,
mental illness and addiction.
"Harper has moved forward where other
governments haven't, and he should be applauded for it," Dion said.
Canada's first-ever national strategy
to improve mental health for all Canadians was released by the
commission last year. It emphasized recovery from mental illness and
urged for more prevention, especially when dealing with young people.
Last week, a campaign aimed at reducing
youth suicide rates in Canada was launched by the Partners for Mental
Health and Michael Kirby, the former chairman of Mental Health
The campaign hopes to "draw attention
to the fact that Canada is failing to meet the mental health needs of
our children and youth with devastating consequences like youth
In an interview, Kirby said the
response has been positive to the campaign, which urges early detection
and treatment of mental illness among youth.
"It's not being rejected out of hand by
anybody," he said. "The federal government recognizes that down the
road, they can save money if they get kids treated earlier."
Dion is equally optimistic for the
Aspiring Workforce recommendations.
"It's my hope that all levels of
government will give careful consideration to these recommendations
because there's lots that can be done easily, and wouldn't necessarily
come at great expense," he said.
Indeed, the report found that working
improves the lives of the mentally ill while reducing the economic
costs. People with mental illness who work, for example, use far fewer
hospital and other health services than those who are unemployed.
Approximately $28.8 billion is also
spent every year in public disability income support for people with
mental illness; the report argues that increasing employment will
dramatically reduce those costs.
"Everyone is a winner if we make the
right changes," the report states. "No country can now afford to have
productive citizens sitting idle because of poorly designed health and