Few things in life can be more depressing or anxiety provoking than looking for employment. At the same time, untreated depression and anxiety can lead the job search process to a complete stand still. As a way of commemorating Mental Health Awareness Month, the LEAD Center has asked me, Dr. Debra Kissen, co-chair of Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) Public Education Committee and Clinical Director for the Light on Anxiety Treatment Center, to outline strategies people with psychiatric and other disabilities can use to maintain or improve their mental health while looking for work.
The job search process is by definition stressful. But stress need not lead to depression and anxiety if you follow the simple tips below.:
1. Create structure for your day. Don’t tell yourself you are going to spend all day working on “finding a job.”. Instead be specific and assign timeslots for all of your tasks you hope to accomplish.
- 9:00-11:00 apply for jobs
- 11:30-12:00 stretch, go for brief walk, small snack
- 12:00 -1:00 network via LinkediIn and send emails to university alumni
- 1:00-2:00 lunch and walk
- 3:00-4:00 read professional journal to stay current on industry trends
- 4:00-5:00 Meetup networking group
NOTE TO SELF: I will stay off social media and other internet sites that suck me in for limitless amounts of time during my “work day”
2. Be realistic. Job search tasks can be mentally taxing and emotionally draining. No one can or should sustain more than two hour stretches of high concentration- related tasks, such as applying for jobs and updating resumes/cover letters. That does not mean the rest of the day should be filled with brain numbing tasks such as mindlessly perusing the internet for any image or sentence that grabs your attention. What it does means is that balance of activities is required to not only survive, but also thrive during the job search process.
On top of direct job search- related tasks, fill your day with other activities that are personally meaningful and energizing to YOU. There are many good workbooks to assist with the process of determining what matters to you such as, “Get Out of Your Head & Into Your Life,” by Steve Hayes.
Do activities that coincide with your values and that get you out of the house. You could try volunteering for a charity, joining an exercise class or attending an event sponsored by your house of worship. The hard part is forcing yourself to engage in these activities when you may feel anxious and depressed due to the stress of the job search process. Remember, there is nothing wrong with using a little compassionate “tough love” to force yourself to function, even when parts of your brain want to curl up in the fetal position and hide out until life somehow magically changes.
3. Go "to work" even when you're not going to work. I have many clients that tell me they do their best work and they are their most effective when working from home. But I must admit, I just don't buy it. I have no data to support the theory I am about to propose, but with that disclaimer, I will share my beliefs regarding working from home. When working from home, our brain realizes we are in a safe, cozy space and does not feel the need to be as activated or alert as it does in “non-home” environments. If you are determined to spend part of the day applying for jobs and doing other job search- related behaviors from home, I would still recommend pushing yourself to find other secondary work environments. It could be your favorite Starbucks or the new coffee shop down the street with a cool vibe or your local library or a friend’s apartment or the park. It does not matter where you go when you “go to work.”. What does matter is that you leave the house for part of the day.
4. Basic self-care matters. Good nutrition, exercise and quality sleep set your brain and body up for productivity. Just because you don't have a set schedule does not mean you should let your body's clock run wild and wake up at any time and go to bed whenever your Netflix binge is over. Set your alarm for the same time every day, for around the time the average work day would begin, and give yourself a cut off point for when you'll be done using technology, ideally by 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. PM.
5. Find connections. There is nothing more soul sucking than isolation. When you are not working or in school there is a tendency to become socially isolated. You are going to have to work at this, but join Meet up groups or local civic organizations or a stamp collecting group or anything else that gets you connected with others.
Remember that the job search process can be quite anxiety ridden and depressing and there's no shame in getting additional support. There are many qualified therapists who can give you the added boost that you need to successfully move through the job search process. To find a qualified cognitive behavioral therapist I recommend checking out the Anxiety and Depression Association of America website to find a therapist resource.
Dr. Debra Kissen is the Clinical Director of the Light on Anxiety Treatment Center of Chicago. She specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy based treatment to children, adolescents and adults with a focus on anxiety and stress-related disorders, including OCD, PTSD, panic disorder, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobias, separation anxiety disorder, compulsive skin picking, trichotillomania and other Body Focused Repetitive Behaviors (BFRBs). Dr. Kissen applies the principles of evidence-based treatments while at the same time treating the whole person, with deep respect for the human spirit and the challenges we all face on our journey through life.
The Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, which was signed into law on December 19, 2014, aims at improving the financial stability of persons with disabilities by authorizing tax-advantaged savings accounts for people with disabilities, known as ABLE accounts. Assets in ABLE accounts can be used to cover any “qualified disability expense,” which can include housing, transportation, support services, and any other expense reasonably related to disability. Additionally, funds in the ABLE account will not be taken into consideration when determining eligibility for federally-funded means-tested benefits, such as Supplemental Security income (SSI) and Medicaid.
ABLE accounts create several economic options for people with disabilities that were largely unavailable previously because of their impact on federal benefit programs and disability support programs.
Alex Ghenis first heard about ABLE and ABLE accounts through his job at the World Institute on Disability. He says the organization had provided a wide array of financial education, including asset-building and work incentives, and ABLE was right at the front of their efforts. The more he learned about it, the more he felt encouraged to sign up.
Alex, who has a spinal cord injury, says having a disability affected his employment and asset-building opportunities in many ways. Among other things, including constraints related to his ability to earn due to income limits associated with being on public benefits, he faced savings limits that made him have to balance income and expenses. These constraints prohibited him from being able to save for his future and limited job opportunities simply because of his disability. Alex also has higher medical expenses that can affect his financial stability and economic future.
Alex says having an ABLE account opens up a huge amount of possibilities for his economic future. “Being able to save isn't just about putting money away; it's about being able to hold a higher-paying job and build a career, to invest and even learn about investing and to have some financial peace of mind.”
He plans on using his ABLE account for a variety of expenses, whether for emergency expenses or everyday bills like rent, groceries and the occasional medical expense, such as a new wheelchair part not covered by insurance. Through his ABLE account, Alex also hopes to save enough to pay for large, life-changing expenses as they come along.
ABLE accounts can help people with disabilities by giving them the ability to save for emergencies or other sudden expenses, in addition to short and long-term expenses. Lack of savings for sudden expenses can make it harder to keep a job. For example, if a person lacks savings and uses a car to commute to work, that person might not be able to fix the car in the event of a sudden breakdown and might lose their job. In the event of a sudden health care emergency, a person without savings may lose wages due to lost work time or have out-of-pocket health care expenses that are unexpectedly high. This sudden financial crisis may interfere with the person’s ability to pay for transportation to work or other work-related expenses, leading to job loss. Since the ABLE Act enables people to accumulate savings beyond previous asset limits, it may help people with disabilities retain employment by allowing them to save for these expenses.
In May, the LEAD Center will release a brief titled, “The ABLE Act and Employment: Maximizing the Effectiveness of the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act as a Tool for Increasing the Financial Stability and Employment Outcomes of People with Disabilities.”
For over 35 years, people have known about best practices and evidence-based approaches to support employment for people with intellectual disabilities. Still a majority of job seekers only learn about and/or participate in systems that utilize ‘traditional’ job search approaches. Customized Employment and Guided Group Discovery (GGD) provide an orientation to the best practices of “supported employment” in a way that is accessible to job seekers hearing this information for the first time. Though a job seeker will likely need additional support beyond the group, Guided Group Discovery provides a place to start and can serve as an introductory boot camp for people who are starting to think about employment. Contrasting the ‘customized’ approach from the ‘traditional’ one provides a vehicle for changing the conversation from “Do you have work for me?” to “What am I looking for from work?” and ”What job would be the best fit for me?” It also pulls in partners so that jobseekers can benefit from services and supports offered by multiple systems, increasing their chances for success.
Creating a space for people to have ownership over their own job search is an interesting prospect, especially for those with complex barriers. St. John’s Community Services in Pennsylvania (SJCS-PA) has been working with men experiencing homelessness at Bethesda Project’s Our Brothers’ Place Shelter and youth living in communities of high intergenerational poverty at The Village of Arts and Humanities. For both groups, barriers include racial discrimination, gaps in or a lack of work history, food and housing insecurity, mental and behavioral health challenges, and a wide range of traumatic experiences. In the face of such systemic hardship, these individuals regularly showcase their ability to navigate complicated social and community-based services, manage complex and competing schedules, act with incredible patience and understanding, and demonstrate internal strength and unwavering persistence. Customized Employment and Guided Group Discovery provide the protected time and space to dig in and identify skills like these and to translate them into their potential contributions to an employer.
In the work SJCS-PA has done with the men at Our Brothers’ Place, one of the most powerful exercises completed was on in which participants were asked to practice their pitch to an employer. This included explaining why they were there (interests), why the owner would be making a good decision in hiring them (contributions), and what they needed from the employer in order to accept the job (conditions). It took significant effort for many of the participants to articulate anything beyond what they typically might have to offer a business. They needed to hear in their own voices that they believed they really have many skills and attributes that would benefit employers. For one participant in particular, it took over 10attempts before he was even able to make eye contact while confidently and succinctly making his pitch.
In engaging job seekers with a disability or anyone with complex barriers to employment, it is also important to view the interaction through the lens of employment as a preventative public health intervention, in that it can improve health and lessen the chance that someone will live in poverty . Research has shown that the unemployment rate is twice as high for adults who have experienced four or more traumatic experiences as children compared to those that experienced zero, as measured by the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) questionnaire. Since 1977, the life expectancy rate has increased 5.3 years for men in the top half of the income distribution, but only 1.3 years for those in the bottom. Low income Americans have higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and other chronic disorders. In 2014 28% of working age adults with a disability were living below the poverty level. In fact, people with a disability are twice as likely to live in poverty as people without a disability.
The work SJCS-PA is doing with The Village of Arts and Humanities is part of the work to end the cycle of intergenerational poverty that disproportionally occurs in communities of color. The Village operates a robust array of programming for youth centered on the Arts, which we have operationalized for employment as encompassing the Creative Economy. We have completed the first in a series of focus groups to get insight into what the youth see as possible career paths in the community and what they feel are the opportunities that are available to them. This will influence the planning of Customized Employment and Guided Group Discovery to help meet them where they are at.
In the last session of the Guided Group Discovery group, we always focus on giving a detailed explanation of the Workforce and Vocational Rehabilitation resources in the community. We also assist jobseekers in building direct connections with specific contacts and provide weekly check-in phone calls. These partnerships are essential in making meaningful impact in our community. There are a lot of people who are in need of a living wage and a stable income. We will never be able to reach everyone and achieve outcome unless we all work together. Our work with the homelessness, workforce, vocational rehabilitation and community employment systems goes a long way to demonstrate that these partnerships can work.
Bethesda Project provides emergency shelter, housing and supportive services for 2,000 homeless and formerly homeless men and women in Philadelphia every year. By providing a home and safe environment, homeless individuals are able to stabilize and regain a sense of dignity and self-worth. Of all Bethesda Project’s residents, 65% have serious medical issues, 60% have mental illness diagnoses, and 45% have histories of addiction. Each resident and shelter guest at Bethesda Project’s 13 sites receives personalized, caring attention and is encouraged to achieve the most independent level of housing possible. Case managers work with guests and residents to overcome their individual challenges and set achievable, realistic goals.
The Village of Arts and Humanities (The Village) is a nationally renowned community arts organization based in North Philadelphia dedicated to neighborhood revitalization through the arts. They value the power of creativity as our most powerful and effective tool for catalyzing healthy and sustainable change. Their legacy is rooted in artist-facilitated community building, beginning with the work of our founders—dancer, choreographer and civil rights activist Arthur Hall (founder of Ile Ife Black Humanitarian Center, predecessor to The Village) and civic practice artist Lily Yeh. Over 30 years, their work has evolved from a focus primarily on arts education and land transformation to a broader and intentional commitment to increasing all residents’ access to tools for creative self-actualization. The Village strives to create a nurturing, energized working environment that taps the creativity of its staff and the neighborhoods to generate programs that are highly supportive, dynamic, and inspiring.