Finding Proper Employment for Mentally Challenged Not Always Easy

By Tony Perkins

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January 12, 2007

INDIANAPOLIS - A man accused of shooting four people on the Indianapolis east side Thursday will be in court next week. Police say Jason Burnam fired at co-workers at the Easter Seals Crossroads building. Family members say Burnam was taking medication to combat depression.

Another man is fighting the same battle against depression and winning the fight for steady employment.

"It's hard to capitalize on your strengths when you aren't sure you have any. Sometimes it kind of feels that way," said attorney Troy Pedersen.

Pedersen earned three academic degrees from Indiana University. He picked up the third one, a law degree, in 1995. But Pedersen's troubles with his mental health stopped his career in its tracks.

"It's hard to sell yourself in a job interview or in front of a judge or jury and argue a case. You may think you know the right answer but you are never really sure," said Pedersen.

Pedersen knew as early as the third grade that he had a problem with depression. He nearly flunked out of college, and he did not get an official diagnosis until after he had left school. Friends directed Pedersen to specialists who could help him find a job that met his strengths and did not dwell on his weaknesses.

"I felt like most employers that I worked for were not open minded about whether a person with depression or some other kind of mental illness working for them could do the job," Pedersen said.

Burnam, the man accused of shooting four people at an east side workplace Thursday, had no criminal history. But his mother said he has bipolar disorder and that he was taking two antidepressant medications. Experts say society is much better at helping people with mental illnesses join the workforce, but they argue that it shouldn't stop there.

"This is a chronic long-term disease. So, just think of going to your heart doctor one time, having your catheterization and never going back. That would not work with heart disease. It does not work with mental illness," said Beth Karnes of the Indiana Mental Health Foundation.

"The biggest thing that we face in terms of our success is the stigma. The other thing we've come a long way with but we have a long way to go with is in the systems of services that provide funding for the kinds of support that we like to provide to individuals," said Marjorie Mansfield of the Indiana Mental Health Association.

"We've had great successes with people with bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia; we've had great successes with employment for those folks. But it's only when we have the proper care, the proper treatment, the proper supports," said Karnes.

Karnes and Mansfield said the workplace is full of individuals who are making a living while coping with mental illness. They are working with employers and state government to improve the ability for mentally-challenged people to find productive jobs. Karnes and Mansfield add that employers should understand that people are people first, while incorporating them into the workplace.

The experts say it's important for mentally challenged people to have a job. But they add that those employees need a system to keep supporting them in case those jobs do not work out.


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