CINCINNATI — Christopher Lawson has only been working at the Eastgate Burger King for three weeks, but he loves it.
“I got people saying, ‘Hey! You’re so nice. You know, it’s hard to find that,’" Lawson said. "And it just makes me happy to deal with them."
He is one of thousands of people around the Tri-State who were unemployed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But his situation involved more than unemployment. It also involved mental illness.
Experts say there is a definite correlation between unemployment and mental illnesses like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress. A report published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine describes an increase in behavioral health conditions in people who have lost employment since the pandemic.
The report also points to a successful process of supporting workers with mental illness by providing services that include help finding a job.
“I started looking around and I put in application after application after application in and I just wasn’t getting nowhere," he said. "And then with the pandemic, they started laying off everybody. I sat at home, and I gained 60 pounds, you know ‘cause I was depressed and everything. I didn’t feel like doing anything.”
Lawson said he was connected to Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health Services, an agency that assists people with behavioral health conditions, substance abuse and developmental disabilities. The nonprofit organization also has specific programs designed to connect those with mental illness with employment.
“We have had more people coming to us looking for help because they maybe didn’t have mental health symptoms prior to the pandemic, but maybe that exacerbated them,” said Kelly Smith-Trondle, director of Employment and Recovery Services at Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health Services.
She said the agency has helped place over 560 clients in jobs since April 2020. About two-thirds of the clients have kept their jobs.
“We believe that work does not follow recovery, but that work produces recovery,” she said.
For Lawson, in only a few weeks, he has seen a difference.
“Now I’ve lost 15 pounds in three weeks because I’m working," he said. "I’m not depressed. I feel like I’m worth something. You know, I feel like I’m actually accomplishing something in my life."
The Work Initiative Network is one of the programs that Lawson used through Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health Services. It is specifically designed to help people with mental illness find jobs.
“Our employment specialists are going out in the community and really trying to develop those relationships with employers so that we can figure out what are you looking for in an employee and how best to get the person hired,” Smith-Trondle said.
The jobs they connect clients to range from entry-level to highly technical positions. Smith-Trondle said there is no fee for the employer or the client in most cases. The agency received funding from several sources including the Mental Health and Recovery Boards in Hamilton and Clermont Counties, United Way and Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities.
“We believe that our clients and people with mental health issues can and should work, but sometimes it’s about getting the right job in the right environment with the right support in place for that person to be successful,” she said.
That support many times comes in the form of a job coach if the client wants one. The job coach can be on-the-job with the client to help them learn different aspects of the new position, or someone who checks in with the client periodically to see how things are going.
“‘Are you going to work? How are you feeling? Are you taking your medicine? What can we do to help you keep that job?” she said.
In Lawson's case, it had been four years since he held a job. He stopped working in 2017 to take care of his dying grandparents. But, he is confident in the progress he has made. He said his managers are supportive.
“I get overwhelmed and, you know, have a hard time dealing with some stuff," he said. "But she understands and she works through that."
Lawson also has a message for others with mental illness who are unsure they can hold a job.
"Don’t let it hold you back because it doesn’t have to,” he said.