Mental illness will affect someone you know and love. Forty-five percent of Australians will experience a mental health problem and 20% of the population is affected each year in a serious way by conditions including anxiety disorders, depression, personality disorders, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, to name just a few.
Many people with mental illnesses want to work and are able work. But the barriers to suitable employment are much higher than for most. This is why the Disability Employment Services exist for all people with disability, be they mental, physical or psychological.
There are many problems with Disability Employment Services for people with mental illnesses, some of which affect people with other disabilities too.
The four main problems are lack of qualified staff, lack of wellness programs, heavy caseloads and lack of options.
These problems have easy solutions that would improve the success rates of these agencies considerably, and raise employment and quality of life for people with mental illnesses.
The lack of qualified staff is the biggest problem. Most employment consultants do not have any TAFE or university qualifications.
In fact, there is no clear idea of what qualifications should be necessary, since they do not specialise in either physical, psychological or intellectual disabilities.
In most other organisations, dealing directly with people who have mental illnesses requires a Certificate IV in Community Services (Mental Health).
I was turned down for a position with a disability employment service in 2010, and told that I may be too sympathetic to clients. The service also told me it did not want to take people with qualifications in community services.
Disability Employment Services are private organisations contracted by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and the government is reluctant to make minimum qualifications mandatory for employment consultants.
These organisations do deliver in-house training for consultants, but there is no independent assessment of the quality of this training.
Most people with qualifications in disability or community services choose to work elsewhere.
Lack of funds, and potentially wasteful spending, can also contribute to the lack of better qualified staff.
It is important that consultants who work with very vulnerable people are appropriately and adequately trained.
Employment consultants do not even require mental health first aid. Most would not know how to deal with a depressed client who lacks motivation to look for work, yet alone a client who is feeling suicidal. I have bipolar and I have had personal experience being lectured by a consultant about having a negative attitude when I was very depressed.
I have also been told by consultants that my best hope for employment is a “survival job” in retail. This is despite the fact that I have TAFE and university qualifications but no experience in retail. This was a factor in a relapse of depressive symptoms.
Some disability employment services do arrange for a psychologist to see clients, but this is usually inadequate and not ongoing care.
Many employment consultants do not focus first and foremost on the client's wellbeing in order to help them gain employment, because they do not have the appropriate understanding or skills to do so, nor do they know what organisations to refer clients to in crisis situations.
Focusing on the client's wellness or recovery journey is usually the most important issue in a client's life. A client who is unwell may not be able to work or may lose work due to being unwell.
Peer support programs like support groups can be a major factor in the ability for someone with a mental illness to live the best life possible. I try to attend a bipolar support group monthly but it is more than an hour’s drive away. Like many people with a mental illness, I do not drive.
Many people, especially in regional areas, cannot access these services. If Disability Employment Services offered these types of programs, the amount of people who could benefit could rise exponentially.
Any program focusing on the wellbeing of the client will aid employment indirectly.
Many Disability Employment Services have a high turnover of staff, and lack the staff required for the amount of clients they have.
My current employment consultant has more than 100 clients and is supposed to see most of them fortnightly, which is simply impossible.
Heavy workloads is one reason that Disability Employment Services cannot attract and retain properly qualified professionals. A higher ratio of consultants to clients would help ease this.
At the moment these organisations accept new clients, regardless of staff client ratios, because they want to raise profits.
Many people with mental illnesses live in lower socio-economic areas where there is already a shortage of stable jobs. On top of this, they may have fractured employment histories, which increases disadvantage in mainstream employment. Many have faced discrimination due to the stigma related to mental illness.
At an ACOSS national conference in 2011, John Mendoza, Director of ConNetica Consulting, said that more than a third of people with mental illness survive on less than $20,000 a year. Many live in poverty due to the mental illness they are afflicted with.
A stable job can help many people with mental illnesses live a more meaningful life and reduce the number of Australian's living in poverty.
[To support improving employment outcomes for people with mental illness, sign the change.org petition “Minister Butler, Minister Ellis: Fix Disability Employment Services”. The minister for employment participation, Kate Ellis, can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. The minister assisting the Prime Minister on mental health reform, Mark Butler, can be contacted at email@example.com.]