Introduction: Despite increasing attention to employment within the mental health sector, reports indicate that people with serious mental illness (SMI) continue to experience limited employment success in the province of Ontario, Canada. Research specifies that people with SMI who live in rural places are less likely than those living in urban centers to have access to satisfactory employment services or to become gainfully employed. The objective of this study was to examine access to employment from the perspectives of people with SMI, mental health and vocational service providers, and decision-makers, and to explore whether place influenced their access to work in northeastern Ontario.
Methods: A qualitative case study using community-based participatory research methods was chosen to examine the experience of access to competitive employment in two northeastern Ontario communities. The cases selected for study were two geographic areas in northeastern Ontario which provided best-practice, mental health services to persons with SMI. Community-based site partners advertised and recruited participants, and a consumer advisory provided input on key stakeholders, questions, findings and the study action plan. The study findings were informed by individual and group interviews conducted with 46 individuals who resided in both rural and urban settings in the case communities, and feedback from 49 participants who attended town hall forums for presentation of study findings and development of an action plan. The qualitative data was supported by a secondary data source reporting on the employment outcomes of 4112 people with SMI who received disability income support and who resided in the case communities. Qualitative data were analyzed inductively, and categories and themes were developed. Findings were member checked with all informants and town hall participants in each case community.
Results: This article draws on the findings of a larger study and reports on the influence of place to the low employment success experienced by people with SMI who reside in the case communities; 91.3% of those receiving disability income support are unemployed, and rural residents experience higher levels of unemployment than those in urban places. Place was found to influence access to employment in five ways: by limited access to employment support services in rural places, and to recommended ratios in urban places; by the use of different models and practices that were inconsistent with best practices for people with SMI; by the lack of a plan for the implementation of employment services in the case communities; by limited use of the available, dedicated vocational resources for employment purposes; and by inadequate supports provided to persons with SMI who wish to enter the workforce. The results also underscore how people with SMI continue to be perceived negatively regarding their capacity for employment. Such stereotypical attitudes additionally contributed to employment marginalization of people with SMI from the workforce, especially in rural communities.
Conclusions: The study highlights the influence of geography and human resources to the implementation of best practice employment services and supports for persons with SMI. Important policy implications include the need to consider place when implementing evidence-based practices in places where geography, distance and human health resources limit the communities' capacity to successfully do so. The study also underscores the need to build community capacity for supported employment, especially in rural places, in order to improve the participation of people with SMI in employment, and subsequently, to help shift the communities' thinking about their capacity for work.