August 16, 2017

By Paul Barnett and Stacey Teegardin


Work is just one area of life where stigma can manifest. Especially for the many people struggling with serious mental illness, who are often labeled as “too sick” or “too dangerous” to work. The majority of individuals with serious mental illness express the desire to work, yet their employment rates are estimated to be 22%, with little more than half of that percentage working full-time.

The rest are placed into sheltered workshops and paid a fraction of minimum wage to do meaningless jobs, like crushing cans or stuffing envelopes. They are typically isolated from the rest of the workforce, further worsening their experience of stigma.

Fewer than 2% of people with serious mental illness have access to evidenced-based employment services. This needs to change. And programs like Individual Placement and Support (IPS) can help people with mental illness find and keep meaningful jobs, supporting their mental health recovery.

What is IPS?

IPS helps individuals find competitive employment in an integrated setting in the community that pays at least minimum wage and offers the same benefits received by other employees. IPS is not reserved for individuals with disabilities—any person who wants employment is offered the service regardless of diagnosis, treatment compliance, substance use or criminal background.

IPS employment specialists help people find jobs of their preference and in coordination with their clinical treatment. These specialists contact at least six employers a week—based on the interests of job seekers—to learn about employer needs and build relationships. The specialists help reduce stigma by introducing employers to qualified employees with mental illness who can contribute to their businesses in many ways.

For example, one specialist shares the story of an individual who recently gained employment:

“He displayed symptoms of severe depression, anxiety, withdrawal and suicidal ideation. He described these struggles as ‘lifelong’ and ‘with no end in sight.’ But he had a solid work history in carpentry, antique restoration and working with his hands. He set his goal as finding a job where he could restore hidden beauty or create things that would make people happy. After two months of looking for a job, he was offered a position with a local business that creates lawn decorations for the holidays. During his first 30 days, he quickly learned not only his position, but every other position at the company, so he could cover whenever and wherever he was needed.

His employer has repeatedly said to me that he is ‘the type of employee that all managers spend their careers looking for.’ During our weekly meetings, he continues to express his passion for creativity, how much his self-esteem has increased, that this is his perfect job and his gratitude for the help in finding it. He told me that he never thought he could look forward to waking up in the morning. He said last week that he was ready to reduce supports since he feels stable and ‘because I know other people need your help too, and I want them to get this experience.’”

What You Can Do

Since January 2015, IPS programs in Colorado have helped more than 2,600 individuals obtain over 1,650 jobs, with a current employment rate of 48%. And with your help, we can spread these positive results nationwide. Here are a few things you can do:

  • Talk to your local community mental health center and advocate for an IPS program to be implemented if they don’t have one.
  • Write to your local legislators, asking them to advocate for these programs.
  • Tell your family, friends, coworkers and neighbors to hire people with serious mental illness. If they are not in a position to hire, ask them to tell their supervisors or human resources department about IPS.  
  • Be supportive of your coworkers who may be struggling with mental illness. You never know who at work might need your support and understanding.

IPS programs can help people with mental illness enrich their lives with the basic human need of purpose. It can help them reclaim their dignity as fully contributing community members and develop real relationships where they are not functioning as “patients,” but simply as people. And it can help combat the ever-present mental illness stigma with a method that actually works—direct contact in ordinary, everyday settings.


Paul Barnett is the Associate Director of Adult Treatment and Recovery Programs for the Colorado Department of Human Services—Office of Behavioral Health. Paul oversees Crisis Services, Evidence Based Programs, Recovery Programs, and Women’s Services. Paul has an MS in Clinical Psychology and an MA in Contemplative Psychotherapy, and he is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Colorado.

Stacey Teegardin is the Individual Placement and Support (IPS) Trainer and PATH Grant Coordinator for the Office of Behavioral Health (OBH) within the Colorado Department of Human Services. She holds a Master of Science degree in Rehabilitation Psychology, is certified as a Rehabilitation Counselor, and has been working in the behavioral health field for over 10 years. 

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