Russinova is more emphatic in extolling the abilities of people with mental illness. "One of the old myths was that people with serious mental illness could only do low-level jobs--the so-called F jobs: flowers, filing, food. We have done studies that have documented capacity of the mentally ill to be successful.
"For example, in the late 1990s, I did a study with Marsha Langer Ellison [Ph.D., M.S.W.] looking at professional and managerial careers. We studied 495 participants around the country who were able to maintain a high-level job successfully for at least six months. Many of these were people who held jobs for years and years, despite their mental illnesses.
"Some of them were in technical jobs, some in sales, some in middle or upper management," she added. "These were definitely not in low-level, menial jobs. Forty-eight percent were in professional specialties. Forty-six percent were in executive positions or were program directors. Only 3% were in clerical and sales jobs, and 2% in low-level technical positions."
Russinova said the group "had a very interesting distribution: 75% of the whole sample was employed full time; 62% had held their position for more than two years; 28% had held the same job for more than five years. What was most interesting was that they had the capacity to keep such high-level jobs for a long time. Thirty-three percent of this sample were working in non-helping professions; 16% were working in health and social services other than mental health--we separated the health services. Thirty percent were in mental health; 21% in self-help advocacy jobs. All in all, it was a very surprising, very positive picture."
Many of the study participants were dependent on continuing treatment to maintain their positions, Russinova said. "These people haven't been cured. Eighty-eight percent of the study participants were taking psychotropic medications at the time of study. They had well-maintained, well-managed illness. Seventy-three percent were in some kind of psychotherapy at the time of study.
"These people made heavy use of the mental health system to maintain their working capacity," she added. "We asked these folks about the things that helped them succeed vocationally. The most important was consistent use of medications. Number two was the support of a spouse or significant other. Third was the support of a therapist. The list varies somewhat per diagnosis. The group with bipolar disorder had a higher percentage of people who were married or in a relationship. In other groups, medications and the support of a therapist were the most important factors contributing to success."
Last May, the Boston University research team presented baseline findings from a five-year study of sustained employment. Of the 696 individuals who met the study criteria of both a serious psychiatric condition and sustained employment in the two years prior to enrolling in the study:
- 74% were continuously employed for the entire two years;
- 17% were employed for 18 of the 24 months;
- 9% were employed for 12 to 18 of the 24 months;
- 80% had at least one psychiatric hospitalization in the past;
- 95% were taking psychotropic medications at the time of the study;
- 74% were working 35 hours or more a week;
- 53% had professional or technical jobs and 24% had managerial or administrative jobs;
- 32% had total annual income of more than $40,000 and 38% had incomes of between $20,000 and $40,000;
- 43% owned their own home; and
- 42% lived with a spouse or significant other.