The Stigma of Mental Illness: Both Sides of the Coin

My name is Megan Northup and I have a mental illness. I have been in the hospital many times over the past five years, which has led me to miss weeks of work at a time.  I used to feel shame upon returning to work because no one except my boss and a few close co-workers knew where I had been or why. Initially, I felt like my mental illness was a secret that I had to keep because nobody at work talked about it. If I mentioned it, I always felt like I had directly addressed the elephant in the room, and no one knew how to respond. However, as time went on, I realized that it was not those I worked with who were uncomfortable with my mental illness, it was me. I saw it as a mark against my character and I thought it defined who I was as a person. Despite the internal or external stigma I felt at work upon returning from a hospitalization, I overcame it. I came to work every day and just did the best I could. This was not always easy. I struggled to concentrate on tasks because some of my medications made me extremely tired. I found that things I could usually handle just fine when I was feeling well could cause me to breakdown to the point that I wanted to quit. However, I knew quitting was not the answer as I got far more from work than just a paycheck on Friday. Work gave me a normalcy that I felt was missing from my life. To do my work and do it well gave me my confidence back and helped my self-esteem, which was almost nonexistent. Being productive again made me feel great and part of something bigger. That connection to my work helped in my recovery from my mental illness.

My Own History with the Stigma of Mental Illness

If I think back to my days at American International College as a young occupational therapy student who had yet to experience my first psychiatric crisis, I realize that even then I struggled with depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation almost daily.  I realize that I also struggled back then with the stigma of mental illness. I struggled so much so that I refused to do fieldwork in a psychiatric setting due to the fact I identified with what the clients were going through. I did not want to be associated in anyway with mental illness.  Life, however, sometimes has a funny way of coming full circle and years later I would find myself in the hospital, on a locked psychiatric unit, and those people I once stigmatized were my peers.

What I learned from being on a Psychiatric Unit

The biggest shock I received from being on a psychiatric unit was that the people around me were just normal everyday people. Yes, I may have met them at a low point in their life. Yes, they were all struggling with whatever issues they had but despite this, they were some of the nicest, most kind, and empathic people I had ever met. They were each trying their hardest to get back to their lives, spouses, children, hobbies, and jobs. I know that many of the people I have met are on disability income and do not work due to the difficulties they face on a daily basis. However, I firmly believe that given the chance and the right supports, many of them would be able to work and benefit from working as I have.  People with mental illnesses have a lot to offer employers: they are resilient, resourceful, and creative. They have overcome adversity, are well-spoken and well-read, and all have something to offer society. I have met individuals who are teachers, veterans, waiters, engineers, and students – all who are a part of an untapped talent pool frequently overlooked due to stigma and misconceptions. All they need is a chance.

What I Think

Sometimes I think our fear of things that are different or unknown can make us wary of interacting with, getting to know, or working with people who we view as different from ourselves. In the media, on television, and in the movies we see individuals with mental illnesses portrayed in a negative light, but these depictions of a few people with mental illnesses should not define a whole group of people who are as diverse in personality, skills, and life experiences as you and I. Therefore, I ask you to look beyond the stigma and misconceptions, and give people with mental illnesses a chance to prove themselves and to be productive, contributing members of our society.

Watch the Work Without Limits Team “Bursting the Stigma” In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month 2016



Visit Mental Health America to learn more about mental illness and the affect of stigma


Work Without Limits 3rd Annual Disability Mentoring Day

Work Without Limits (WWL) is excited to announce that applications are open for the 3rd Annual Disability Mentoring Day (DMD), taking place on Friday, April 27, 2018 in collaboration with the Massachusetts Business Leadership Network (MABLN) and the American Association of People with Disabilities.

Disability Mentoring Day (DMD) is a large-scale national effort to promote career development for candidates with disabilities through hands-on career exploration and ongoing mentoring relationships.

How does it work?

Mentees are job seekers with disabilities who are 18 years or older and who are seeking to gain exposure to a professional working environment.  Each mentee completes an application where they are asked to provide information on their career goals and aspirations. Based on their answers, the mentee is paired with a mentor who works in a career that is similar to the mentee’s career goal.  On the actual Disability Mentoring Day, the mentee goes to the selected company for the day to meet their mentor and learn about the necessary skills needed for that particular role.

Companies who host the mentees are members of the MABLN, an association of businesses and employers that are committed to including people with disabilities in their workplaces.  Mentors from these companies are identified and matched to mentees according to career tracks and interests. The employers and mentors who participate in DMD are proven disability employment and inclusive hiring champions, and are eager to welcome mentees!

What are possible activities that may happen on DMD?

It’s possible that only one mentee will be matched with a company, but it is more probable that there will be a small group of perhaps 3-5 mentees at each company. Although each company is encouraged to get creative with the structure of their DMD, there are many agenda similarities across companies. A typical day might include:

  • Welcome and Mentor/Mentee Meet & Greet
  • Company Overview
  • Facility Tour
  • Application and hiring process overview with Human Resources
  • 1:1 mentor/mentee job shadowing and meeting time
  • Lunch 1:1 with mentor or in a small group

Mentees should plan to take part in all aspects of the Mentor’s work day, whether it be attending meetings, participating in conference calls, running a cash register, or one of the many other activities.

DMD is a great opportunity for mentees to learn about the culture of a particular company, to get hands on experience in a particular field, and above all, to build a professional network that they can leverage as they transition into work and throughout their careers!

In the pilot year of DMD (2016), 29 mentees and 10 employers participated. In the 2nd year (2017), 43 mentees and 9 employers participated. For our current year (2018), there are 7 employers participating. These companies include: Eastern Bank; Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston; John Hancock; MassMutual; National Grid; TJX Companies Inc.; and UMass Medical School.

How does one become a Mentee?

Mentees can refer themselves  or be referred by WWL Community Partner Organizations that include Asperger/Autism Network (AANE); Berkshire Works Career Center; Bridgewater State University; BU Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation; Carroll Center for the Blind; Community Work Services; Epilepsy Foundation of New England; Quinsigamond Community College; Massachusetts Commission for the Blind; Partners for Youth with Disabilities (PYD); Regional Employment Collaboratives; Triangle; and Work, Inc. Special thank you to our community partners for actively promoting DMD and sourcing mentees!

What do prior participants have to say about their experience with DMD?

In 2017, 96.3% of mentees thought they were matched successfully and 93.5% of mentors thought they were matched successfully.

Mentees who have participated in DMD in prior years have told us that their favorite part of DMD was:

“Meeting with my Mentor privately was a great opportunity I never could have realized without the creation of this day.”

“Five complete hours of enjoying the working experience with motivation galore from great hands-on exposure to kind hearted people who went out of their way to make me feel right at home!”

“My favorite part of the day was meeting other mentors and seeing what they did for jobs.”

“Getting to know people in the departments, press room and consumer line. Also getting to meet the incredible Attorney General Maura Healy.”

“My Mentor was very professional, and his current research project is related to my professional background.”

And Mentors told us:

“My mentee’s professional interests allowed us to explore how my role and career path could provide some valuable information for consideration in his career path goals.”

“We had three wonderful Mentees who were a great match for the office and made all of our efforts worthwhile. We felt like we hit the jackpot with the matches!”

“I see benefits of working with someone with autism, and that those benefits can outweigh the drawbacks!”

“The purpose of DMD is to encourage a person to participate in the world- introduce them to the work world. You do not need to know their disability to do that. ”

“DMD taught me how prepared and qualified individuals with disabilities are to work with, in some cases with little accommodation.”

“My mentee was absolutely delightful and was engaged throughout the day. He was very eager to meet and talk to as many people as possible!”

It’s not too late to apply for DMD
but slots are filling up quickly!
Deadline to apply is next Friday,
March 23rd. Sign up here!

My daughter, Noelle: Finding herself in her work

Our daughter, Noelle, is on the cusp of adulthood. She’s an engaging 21-year-old with Down Syndrome, who is excited about what the future holds. We’ve helped her develop a vision of the life she wants to lead and employment is an important part of it. Why? A job will provide structure, purpose, and fulfillment to her life. It will help define her identity, influencing how she sees herself in the community and how the community sees her. How will this happen? Through the opportunities that employment provides for relationships, achievement and community inclusion.

Relationships – Life is more fun with friends! Young adults with disabilities can face challenges building and maintaining friendships. To avoid social isolation, they need opportunities to build and sustain meaningful relationships. The workplace can provide the types of opportunities for social interaction that can help build friendships. Noelle has experienced this in her volunteer role at a local nursing home. She has used her wit and charm to connect with patients in ways that others have not, bringing happiness to them and their families. The staff have embraced her too, surprising her last month with a birthday cake and delivering a collective smile!

Achievement – Employment provides opportunities for achievement, and achievement provides opportunities for fulfillment. A job can present daily opportunities for task completion and skill development; helping individuals with disabilities build their identity. Noelle exudes pride when she completes tasks and masters skills. You can’t wipe the smile off her face when we enter the local restaurant where she interns. She excitedly explains her role at the restaurant and introduces us to her manager. The impact of her workplace achievements are self-evident.

Noelle practices her elevator pitch during
a PwC sponsored session on job seeking skills.

Community Inclusion – If you are not present in the community, are you really part of the community? Too often individuals with disabilities lack employment opportunities in their local communities. The benefits of working near home are obvious – reduced commuting times, familiar settings, and, most importantly, the opportunity to be seen. Being seen allows one to experience the benefits of the community and interact with neighbors, friends, teachers, and family. Noelle loves being seen! Seeing acquaintances at local stores, restaurants, and other community settings can be the highlight of her day. Having these opportunities at work would have a meaningful impact on her life.

The impact of employment extends beyond the traditional wage for services model of an employer/employee relationship. A job often influences an individual’s identity – how they see themselves and how others see them. This is especially true for individuals with disabilities. As Noelle begins to search for jobs in earnest, our focus will be on helping her find a position that provides opportunities for relationships, achievement, and community inclusion.

Employment for individuals with disabilities should provide opportunities for relationships, achievement and community inclusion.


If you are a person with a disability seeking inclusive employment or an employer seeking diverse
candaites sign up to Work Without Limits Job Board


If you are an employer seeking great talent such
as Noelle, join our Massachusetts Business Leadership Network (MABLN) to gain access to all WWL has to offer!

Providing Quality Disability Benefits Planning Services Since 2000

In 2000 and as part of the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act, the U.S. Social Security Administration awarded a number of benefits planning grants to community providers throughout the country. These grants, now referred to as Work Incentive Planning and Assistance (WIPA) grants, aimed to assist recipients of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to better understand the myriad of work rules and reporting requirements regarding these public benefit programs. Two grants were awarded in Massachusetts:

  • The Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission named their program, Project IMPACT. This program is still in existence today and services Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Plymouth, Bristol, Barnstable, Dukes, and Nantucket counties.
  • Resource Partnership, a private non-profit organization based in Natick, MA, named their program, BenePLAN. At the time of the grant, Kathy Petkauskos, current director of Work Without Limits (WWL), was the Executive Director of the Resource Partnership. In 2008 the BenePLAN grant and program transitioned over to UMass Medical School as part of the WWL Initiative, which aims to improve the employment rates for individuals with disabilities in Massachusetts.  This program services individuals living in Middlesex, Worcester, Franklin, Hampshire, Hampden and Berkshire counties.

    As part of Work Without Limits brand management process, BenePLAN has been renamed Work Without Limits Benefits Counseling. This rebranding provides a seamless integration of benefits counseling services into the larger picture of inclusive employment that has been the hallmark of Work Without Limits since its inception in 2008.
    Despite the name change, the WWL Benefits Counseling staff continue to provide comprehensive benefits counseling services in our territory. The mission of the benefits counseling program is to inform SSDI and SSI recipients about the effect of work income on all public benefits, not just their Social Security benefits. To date, WWL Benefits Counseling has provided services to thousands of Massachusetts residents.

    Through the hard work and dedication of our highly skilled team of Community Work Incentives Coordinators (CWICs), WWL Benefits Counseling provides one-on-one counseling to individuals receiving SSDI and or SSI.

    Our CWIC team, consisting of myself, Brian Forsythe, as well as my colleagues Barbara Lee, Marjorie Longo and Winnie Siano, explains the effect of work income on not only SSDI and SSI, but also MassHealth, Medicare, SNAP, EAEDC, TAFDC and Public Housing. Understanding the effect of work income on public benefits makes the decision to return to work less challenging.

    In addition to providing benefits counseling, the WWL Benefits Counseling team also provides a number of training programs geared toward state agency and community provider staff who work with individuals with disabilities who are working or looking to return to work. We additionally provide overview presentations to parents and caregivers looking to understand how work will affect their child’s public benefits.

    Work Without Limits also provides Benefits Counseling services to Social Security beneficiaries through the Work Without Limits Administrative Employment Network (WWL AEN).  Individuals enrolled in this program have assigned their Social Security Ticket to Work to the WWL AEN and have achieved or are seeking to achieve independence from SSI or SSDI payments.  Benefits Counseling services through the WWL AEN are designed to help individuals build a bridge to financial security free from public benefits.

    Learn more about WWL Benefits Counseling 

    Register to one of our Nuts & Bolts training

    If you would like to learn more about WWL AEN