Employment services do not help those with mental illness

February 18, 2013

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 kate.ellis.mp@aph.gov.au. The minister assisting the Prime Minister on mental health reform, Mark Butler, can be contacted at mark.butler.mp@aph.gov.au.]


I put in a fairly lengthy comment on the above article on mental health in Australia last night, but it has not survived, apparently. Frankly, I can't be bothered re-drafting the article: I must say that by now I'm sick and tired of attempting to bring to the attention of the 'GLW' editors and of the WA Socialist Alliance supremos the serious threat to the civil liberties of the entire WA community constituted by the proposed new mental health laws in WA. The above piece from the latest issue of 'GLW' is just a general treatment of some issues and problems in the area of mental health in Australia. It says nothing at all about the draft WA Mental Health bill, nor about the denial in the current Act of a patient's right to an independent judicial review of an involuntary admission to a psychiatric institution in WA. In my opinion, the attitude adopted in the above article is similar in its approach to the attitude of middle-class philanthropists and other 'do-gooders' active in the early decades of the industrial revolution in England. The 'mentally ill' of today in Australia are perceived in the article above as the industrial proletariat were back in the early 19th century: as a 'passive, suffering mass', to be tended by philanthropic petty bourgeois. In this scenario, the notion that the 'mentally ill' could be considered to have human rights, or that they might deserve to be treated as full citizens, is swept aside. The central issue in WA regards mental health is the urgent requirement to re-establish in WA the principle of the separation of powers as a vital component of the structure and functioning of democratic government, and thus to ensure that anyone detained against their will in a psychiatric institution in WA by the Mental Health Department has full access to the judicial system, so that an appeal against arbitrary detention can be lodged and heard before a court. The mentally ill, and those whom the authorities deem to be mentally ill, must have exactly the same rights as everyone else in the community. There can be no talk of human rights for the psychiatrically unwell unless they have the same rights of access to the justice system that everyone else has. I wouldn't have thought it necessary to point out these obvious facts to the 'GLW' editorial board, or to the Socialist Alliance leadership. But there it is. - Graham Milner
Dear RufusFirefly, I live in New South Wales, and as I am writing from the perspective of my lived experience I have no knowledge of the Western Australia Bill so I can not comment on it. I'd like to thank the GLW for publishing my article that was ignored by mainstream media, because I believe the media in general do not care about the rights of people with mental illnesses.I am not a "do-gooder" I am a consumer of mental health services looking for systemic change in relation to my experiences of Disability Employment Services, and have been treated badly by Minister Ellis's office and Minister Butter's office. It has recently been brought to my attention that employment services get more money from service fees then from getting positive outcomes, so DEWER pay them more to fail. I think human rights for all humans (and some apes) are important issues and I urge you to continue to raise awareness about the Western Australian Bill. I am not middle class I live on Newstart. Faithfully Kristy Mounsey
Thank you for your response to my comment on your article. In the light of what you say about your circumstances I withdraw what I said earlier about your class status and allegiances. I am still attempting to raise awareness about the threat to the interests of the psychiatrically unwell or disabled posed by the WA government's draft Mental Health legislation, as well as to the threat that the bill represents to the civil liberties of the WA community as a whole. I understand that there might be an article on the issue in the next 'GLW'. Regards, Graham Milner
Good luck with getting your article published with Green Left Weekly. They were wonderful to me, and I think it would be amazing if we could make sure every issue of the GLW had an article about an issue concerning people with mental illness. My next step is to do the research and get published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry and I think you should try to do the same about your issue if you are a consumer as only people who are consumers or psychiatrists are able to publish in that journal, and you must have evidence to support your claims by citing other research. I hope you will sign my petition here is the link http://www.change.org/en-AU/petitions/minister-butler-minister-ellis-fix-disability-employment-services?utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=url_share&utm_campaign=url_share_after_sign

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