Employee models recovery to empower others

In celebration of October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we share a story focusing on employment and behavioral health.

Meet Mindy. Mindy is one of the newest King County employees within the Behavioral Health and Recovery Division (BHRD). Mindy has a Master’s degree from Brigham Young University and has worked at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and Harborview Medical Center. She is also someone with a chronic mental health condition who has participated in BHRD’s Supported Employment Program.

“I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at age eight. In college, I got a more formal diagnosis and managed my symptoms pretty well,” says Mindy. Then in 2004, she experienced a series of sudden losses. “My boyfriend broke up with me, I lost my cat, and my long time therapist closed his practice. For some people, these events may not sound so bad, but for me, they brought up a lot of childhood trauma.”

Mindy’s normal medications also didn’t work as well anymore. She started missing days at work. Then she used time through the Family Medical Leave Act.

“Finally, when I ran out of all my savings, I reluctantly signed up for social security and eventually went to the hospital,” says Mindy. “That was a low point. A psychiatrist told me I would likely be on disability and unemployed for the rest of my life.  I remember thinking, ‘I didn’t get a Master’s degree to be unemployed.’”

Mindy eventually found out about new therapies, received a change in medications and sought employment assistance through BHRD. At Asian Counseling and Referral Services, one of seven BHRD contracted employment programs, Mindy received the help needed to manage her illness while returning to work.

“My employment specialist, Ken, had a gift for really getting to know me and helping me believe in myself again,” she says.

Ken and his behavioral health team provided support with managing her symptoms at work, as well as practical skills for interviews, resumes, “disability-friendly” employer leads, and ongoing support after job placement.

“With my first job back in the working world, I was really anxious. I would call him on my breaks. I can’t tell you how much that helped me,” says Mindy. “He was always available and together we would practice some therapeutic activities at work that would help me push through the day.”

“Sometimes when things didn’t work out, Ken would remind me that I wasn’t a failure, that I could go back to work, and that we just needed to find the right ‘job match’ for me,” she adds. “He was such an integral part of me not giving up and not seeing myself as ‘less than’ among co-workers.”

Today, Mindy is a Certified Peer Specialist and a Social Service Specialist at BHRD.

“Being a peer support specialist allows me to model recovery and give back to my peers so they feel empowered to achieve their own goals,” she says.

Mindy shares the important role employment shared in her recovery and the personal impact of having a supportive work environment.

“It means independence and self-reliance. I beat the odds and I’m really proud of myself,” she says. “I want to thank King County for being open to hiring people with disabilities and encourage other employers to do the same.”

“The small accommodations, like having an extra 15 minute break on rare occasions to check in with our support systems or to practice our wellness strategies, will go a long way in terms of the loyalty and commitment we feel towards an organization.”

Mindy also encourages others to not minimize health conditions, and welcomes people to say hello.

“I once had a bus driver who looked at my disabled fare card and asked ‘Is that your card?’ Just because people can’t see my illness that doesn’t make it any less or more challenging than other illnesses. It’s just one piece of who I am as a whole person.”

“If you see me in a King County elevator or out in the community, please say hello, and know that I’m just one person among many who are in recovery and getting back to work!”

To learn more about the King County Behavioral Health Supported Employment program, watch the video below. To learn more about supporting individuals with behavioral health conditions in the workplace visit the U.S. Department of Labor website.

This article is featured courtesy of Lisa Floyd, Behavioral Health and Recovery Division Employment Program Manager, with the Department of Community and Human Services