PATH Employment Services wants to take the stigma out of mental illness

With over 200 classified forms, mental illness can manifest in a variety of ways that affect a person’s mood, thinking, and behaviour. Tara Aronson is the Manager of Employment Services at PATH, an employment services organization that has worked with people of all types of disabilities to find and retain meaningful employment in Hamilton for over 45 years. PATH helps to support people with various Mental Health Disorders.

Tara Aronson is the Manager of Employment Services at PATH

Tara shared what PATH is doing to help Hamiltonians with mental illness.

Q: What do you wish people understood about mental illness, especially in terms of finding employment or hiring someone with a mental disability?

TA: It is critically important for people to understand that mental illness is a disability. Mental illness is a problem with bodily function i.e. the functioning of the brain. It has activity limitations because it can prevent people from executing a task or action. It has participation restrictions because it is a problem experienced by an individual in life situations. When you understand mental illness as a disability you can apply an accommodation in the workplace to it, and with that applied accommodation a person with a mental illness can be successful at work. It becomes easier when you look at what the disability is, what a person with the disability needs in order to be included and successful in the workforce, and how to execute the identified accommodation. That’s what we specialize in at PATH.

As a non-visible disability, employers may be unaware that they have people with mental disabilities already working for them. At PATH we appreciate the importance of a job. It can make a huge difference in someone’s life. Prolonged unemployment can damage an individual’s mental health, ravage the sense of self and destroy necessary supportive relationships. Financial problems through job loss can lead to anxiety and depression. Being open to hiring someone that’s had a gap in their employment history can make a huge difference.

Q: Do you find people are shyer when it comes to disclosing a mental disability (versus a physical one)?

TA: Absolutely. There are huge stigmas around disclosure of mental disabilities. Generally people lack knowledge about mental disability/illness and may jump to negative conclusions. Even the wording used in the medical community when it comes to mental illness can be problematic when trying to reduce the stigma because it uses words like “recovery.” You wouldn’t suggest that someone with Cerebral Palsy who uses a motorized transportation device would be expected to “recover” from their disability, but with mental disability some aspect of personal responsibility is implied. The truth is that mental illness is just as much a disability as any physical one.

Q: Any success stories finding employment for someone in this situation?

TA: Many. The key to our success is understanding how someone’s disability impacts work, how it impacts specific tasks on the job, and how it impacts the person while at work. One example is a client who has bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, and he was disclosing these disabilities in the interview. Let’s call him Larry. Now, the disclosure of Larry’s disability was not a problem, and we know that if more people disclosed disability the stigma would be reduced. But the result was that the employers Larry was interviewing with did not know what to do with that information. They understood that he had a disability, but they were not clear on how to accommodate him. We helped Larry to explain to the employer HOW the disability impacted him in the workplace and that the solution to accommodate his disability was simple.

Approximately once or twice a day Larry would need to go outside for 5 minutes to clear his head and focus. He would need to put headphones on at his desk to drown out some of the noise in the office as it triggered his anxiety. For the employer, this was a simple solution that they could easily accommodate. It cost them nothing. This is an important point to remember- most accommodations cost nothing, and if there is a cost, it is usually less than $500.

Q: For someone suffering from mental illness or a mental disability: do you have any advice to help them seek employment? Be more confident? Advice in general?

TA: I would like to let them know that there is support available, and that they don’t have to figure it all out on their own. PATH specializes in supporting people with disabilities, and can help you to formulate an employment plan that is achievable. I would like people to realize that they are not alone in their disability, that it is far more common than they think. There are ways to disclose, ask for help, and achieve success- and we can work together to get there.

The discussion around stigma is very important. If we recognize it and talk about it there is more hope that people that have mental illness will come forward and access the services they need. Getting effective treatment or learning how to manage mental health can be restorative. Connecting to employment is critical in so many ways, much more than just getting a paycheque. It relates directly to overall health and well-being, social connection, sense of self and self-worth. Someone working is generally building their lives and moving forward.

PATH Employment Services is located at 31 King Street East, Suite 100. Head to or call 905-528-6611 to learn more.