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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 report.

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 mental illness.

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 franchisee.

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 epilepsy."

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 Commission.

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 suicide."

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 social programs."





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