Overcoming Unemployment And Mental Illness

While unemployment for the overall population is running at 6.7 percent, for people coping with psychiatric difficulties, it reaches 90 percent. For those struggling with both, there's a special program that not only dramatically lowers unemployment, but also fosters self-respect, reports CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook.

Steve Cromer really loves going to work.

"It's hard to explain psychologically," Cromer says. "I feel like I'm on cloud nine all the time."

Cromer's been diagnosed with a variety of mental illnesses, and at 36, this is the first job he's ever been able to hold for more than a couple of months, LaPook reports.

He's succeeding now because of a program called "supported employment," meaning that an entire team of specialists is behind him, and nurturing every aspect of his success.

"There are seven basic principles to supported employment," says Nicole Clevenger, who teaches those principles to groups of mentally ill people hoping to find work.

She's not only an advocate, she's a client, LaPook reports. And if she had to decide which is worse, coping with mental illness or struggling to find work…

"Being unemployed, without a doubt," she says.

Thirty-one and bi-polar, Clevenger is a single mother of two who fled job after job because of anxiety and panic attacks.

"I felt like a failure," she says. "I was ashamed."

Advocates of supported employment say almost half the mentally ill who want to work could be working, under the right conditions - a psychiatrist, an understanding boss and a job coach who, in Clevenger's case, is a lifeline when anxiety strikes.

"She's willing to walk me through, she'll all but hold by hand if I need her to," Clevenger says.

Supported employment turned her life around, she says.

Click here to read more about the Supported Employment program
"Working has helped me further my recovery more than any other single thing I've ever done," Clevenger says. "Including medication."

The program costs about $3,000 per patient for the first year only - and then begins to pay for itself. But there are no federal funds for it, LaPook reports, and only about a dozen states willing to pay. For people like Steve Cromer, who are unemployed, mentally ill and approaching middle-age, supported employment also provides relief for their families. In Cromer's case, it's a huge weight off his mother's shoulders.

"It's just very upsetting, it kind of tears you up inside to know, you know, what's going to happen to him when we're not here to help him," says Carol Cromer.

But with support, Cromer is on his way to helping himself.

"I just want you to be proud of me," Steve tells his mom.

"Well I am," Carol says.

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    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for CBS News.