Each October, National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) commemorates the many contributions that people with disabilities – including those with behavioral health disorders- bring to America’s workplaces and economy. This year’s NDEAM theme is “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion.”

The HHS Overdose Prevention Strategy includes Recovery Support as one of the four pillars to prevent overdoses and save lives. We recognize how critically important employment is in recovery from mental health and addiction problems. Employment provides purpose, independence, income and resources to participate fully in communities. Too often, people with behavioral health problems face obstacles in attaining and sustaining work. Evidence based practices to overcome these obstacles, such as supported employment are frequently not available. Past criminal justice involvement and concerns about losing benefits pose other barriers. Discrimination and stigma continue to have a negative impact on the hiring and retention of people experiencing these conditions. As a result, SAMHSA’s National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) indicates that almost 2/3 of people with serious mental illness do not have full time employment while most prefer to work. NSDUH also shows increased rates of unemployment among those with substance use disorders. This leads to widespread impoverishment among these populations with, for example, people with serious mental illnesses living in poverty at twice the rate of the general population as well as a greater likelihood of experiencing homelessness. Unemployment also contributes to the worsening of behavioral health problems including increased risk for deaths due to suicide and overdose. The COVID-19 pandemic, with its associated high rates of unemployment and behavioral health disorders, has only exacerbated these problems. Clearly, we must do more to address the employment needs of Americans with mental health and addiction problems.

SAMHSA is responding to this imperative to take action. Here are a few examples of our efforts to help people with behavioral health disorders get and keep jobs:

  • Treatment, Recovery and Workforce Support Program – Grantees across the nation are providing career development services including one-stop supports consisting of outreach, skill assessment, literacy, job search and placement and more to people with substance use disorders. Customized job readiness includes resume building, GED completion, computer literacy, case management, peer supports, job shadowing and coaching. Areas of focus include serving ethnically diverse justice-involved populations, veterans, and people experiencing homelessness. Business collaborators include Amazon, Home Depot, Lowes, Proctor and Gamble, Consumer First Financial, and Hammer Haag Steel. In only its first year, the program has served approximately 900 participants with 300 achieving employment for a 30% success rate. The following is just one example of the program’s success:

    Aaron Burdo is a client at WestCare GulfCoast’s Residential Treatment Facility and is part of the new Workforce Support Grant program. Aaron is an Army Combat Veteran. He started working at Hammer Haag Steel, Inc on 2/26/21. This is what Glen Blickenstaff, Chief Operating Officer at Hammer Haag Steel wrote about Aaron:

    Aaron Burdo was a fantastic hire. Rarely these days do you find someone as dedicated and trustworthy as he is. We run a large fabrication facility with multiple departments. In a short time, Aaron has worked in Paint, Assembly, Prefabrication and Fabrication. My only difficulty is that every manager wants him to work in their department. Within a few weeks of working here, Aaron was welding. This is amazing as we frequently have people that come to us with years of experience but fail to weld to our standard and have to be trained. Aaron had no experience but has the capacity to be an excellent welder.

    Image of a welder
    Used with permission from WestCare

  • Transforming Lives Through Supported Employment Program – This grant program focuses on the expansion of evidence-based support employment for people with serious mental illness, youth with serious emotional disturbances, and/or individuals with co-occurring mental and substance use disorders. To date, the program has served over 1000 individuals from diverse demographic backgrounds resulting in a 161% rate of improvement in employment and school participation. Other outcomes show improvements in functioning, illegal substance use, community retention, housing stability, social connectedness and criminal justice involvement. Here’s an example of one grantee’s success:

    The LifeWorks project in Austin, TX, serves transition-age youth, implementing Individual Placement and Support Supported Employment with Permanent Supported Housing and Supported Education. Their most recent data indicate that 85% of the 64 participants are now employed, 42 of whom are working full time and 13 employed part time. Fourteen participants are receiving benefits from their employers. Of those served, 65% are also exploring supported education and 66% are engaged in supported housing. The types of businesses involved are diverse including food services, customer service, childcare, hospital systems, landscaping, technology, and more.

  • Peer & Recovery Supports – SAMHSA is expanding the employment of people with mental health and/or addiction problems in the behavioral health workforce as providers, policy makers, program developers, and technical assistance experts in recovery and peer support. This includes the Peer Recovery Center of Excellence – which has developed a Recovery-Friendly Workplace Toolkit, the Statewide Consumer Network Program, the Recovery Community Services Program, the Building Communities of Recovery Program, and the National Consumer and Consumer Supporter Technical Assistance Centers. There are now over 25,000 people estimated to be working as peer specialists, recovery coaches and in similar roles.

We will continue to build on this work. Recently, in an exciting development, SAMHSA announced that it is establishing its first-ever Office on Recovery. Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use Miriam E. Delphin-Rittmon, Ph.D stated, “In standing up this new office, SAMHSA is committed to growing and expanding recovery support services nationwide.” Employment is one of those critical recovery support services to be grown and expanded.

SAMHSA is working with our partners – including the US Department of Labor, the Social Security Administration, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Administration for Community Living, and the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services – to expand opportunities for employment, inclusion, and recovery. We also recognize that it will take all of us to improve employment rates for those of us with behavioral health disorders – business owners, government, providers, unions, family members, people in recovery and more. Together, we can save lives – including preventing overdoses – by supporting people with addiction and mental health problems to seek and sustain work. We look forward to joining with you in achieving this vision.

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