The National Alliance on Mental Illness has released discouraging numbers on the employment rate for those with mental illness. Nationally, NAMI puts employment for people with mental illness at around 18 percent. But in Pennsylvania, that rate was 9.4 percent. 

That number echoes widespread economic struggles in the state, said Joseph Rogers, chief advocacy officer at the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

"I think it's reflecting, in a large part, the economy," Rogers said. "When the economy is not doing well, people with disabilities of any kind, including psychiatric disabilities, tend to fall out of the job market."

The most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts Pennsylvania in the middle of the pack – ranking 20th – for general unemployment nationally.

Mark Salzer, chair of the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences at Temple University, said Pennsylvania is not as much of an outlier as the NAMI report portrays.

"I'm shocked," he said. "I'd be surprised if Pennsylvania was any lower than any other states."

Inconsistencies in data collection may have skewed the state's ranking, Salzer said, pointing to the federal database that the numbers came from, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, as the probable culprit. SAMSHA relies on self-reporting by the states.

"Every state has its own way of monitoring this variable," said Salzer. And that may have resulted in some states over-reporting employment rates.

Looking beyond job numbers

Whether the percentage of employed people with mental illness is 18 percent, or less than 10 percent, Salzer and Rogers agreed the report documents a need for job-placement resources targeting people with mental illness.

"The big problem is that employment for people with mental illness has been stagnant for 10, 20, 30 years," said Salzer.

NAMI offered recommendations, including evidence-based supported employment programs that focus on "placing and training" people with mental illness, not the other way around. Previous models focused on pre-employment training, but more recent evidence shows that placing people in jobs first and continuing to train employees is more effective.

Vera Zanders, who works for the Montgomery County Office of Mental Health, said the county adopted the newer supported-employment model and it's getting results.

"We get 60 percent of our participants employed, up from 15 to 20 percent," the success rate for the older mode, she said..

Even when placement is helping, stigma still is a persistent challenge, said Rogers.

"I'm a person myself with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I know from my own life experiences that it can be tough, because you have a checkered work history, because of your illness," he said.

Many forms of mental illness first crop up during young adulthood, taking time away when most people are acquiring job skills or earning degrees.

The low employment rate does not mean those with mental illness would rather not work; more than half of those surveyed say they'd like a job.

In the NAMI report, New Jersey and Delaware posted employment rates better than the national average, 28 and 23 percent respectively.

Nationally, employment for persons with mental illness has fallen 5 percent since 2003, from 23 percent in 2003 to around 18 percent in 2012. During that same time, average employment for the general population dropped around 1 percent.