Major depression drove Carol Scholtz to hide out in her closet. Jackie Polite remained holed up inside her home, lying in bed and wearing out the numbers on her television remote.
And engineer Mike Norris overcame his battle with substance abuse, only to take on dead-end jobs delivering pizza and flowers.
For these three Baltimore-area residents, and thousands of others around the state, a common antidote has come in the form of Schapiro Training and Employment Program Inc. Since 1986, STEP has given a new beginning to an overlooked and highly stigmatized segment of the workforce, those with mental illnesses and psychiatric disabilities.
Located at 1025 St. Paul St., STEP's supported-employment program covers everything from mastering the basics of public transportation to developing longtime program participants through classes on resume-writing, job-interviewing skills and workplace etiquette.
Clients range from minimum-wage laborers to administrators and professionals earning more than $60,000 a year. Their disabilities include major depression, schizophrenia and extreme bi-polar disorder.
"Once we come through these doors, we're human beings again," said Ricky Johnson, whose sporadic work history ceased after being referred to STEP in 2002. He now is a member of the organization's board.
Critical job skills
STEP's curriculum ranges from computer courses to a 12-week program in customer service with on-the-job training. The Community College of Baltimore County co-sponsors a 14-week human-services program and also awards certificates for those who graduate from its computer-skills program.
For the diverse pool of clients, the STEP approach starts simple.
"They don't treat me like I'm a nut case," Polite said. "You need the perseverance and diligence, and someone to give it to you."
Polite rose through the ranks to become administrative assistant to the president of Professional Help Solutions Inc. after completing STEP's customer-service and computer classes.
Patients are referred to STEP by social workers and mental health clinics. They include Johns Hopkins University, Sinai Hospital and the Maryland Division of Rehabilitation Services.
Coaches ease transition
Candidates meet initially with an intake specialist before the program's director assigns their file to an employment training specialist -- or job coach.
State regulations require the file to be assigned to a job coach within five days, then to an employment client within 10 days for a vocational assessment. Companies receive incentives and entitlements, such as tax credits of up to $6,000, for each graduate hired.
Employers also receive the peace of mind from STEP's continuous consultation and long-term follow-up services.
Aside from counseling availability, the program also provides courses and discussions involving a variety of workplace issues. On one Tuesday morning, for instance, eight clients examined ways of handling stress on and off the job with an instructor.
Executive Director Patricia Dieter said employers are aware that STEP candidates were at a point of recovery when they came to the program.
"Not all people who have mental illness are murderers," Scholtz said. "That stigma follows us everywhere."
Disclosure also eases each employer's transition.
"The employer knows of our mental illness," Johnson said. "We don't have to hide it, so it takes a lot of stress off of us."
Job coaches cut employers' training expenses by learning the duties of the position before the client comes aboard.
Dieter recalled a candidate who was hired as a bagger at a small grocery store. Two days later, the candidate began a three-week vacation.
"We made the promise that the job would get done, so for three weeks the job coach was out of the office, bagging groceries," Dieter said.
Utilizing funding dollars
State financing covers most of STEP's $1.1 million budget. The program has 32 employees. Federal grants cover its Transitional Youth Program, which prepares city high school juniors and seniors for employment after graduation.
But as the list of programs seeking money from an ever-shrinking state budget grows, fewer dollars have gone to STEP in recent years. As a result, the program no longer receives aid for treating clients with generalized anxiety conditions, as well as those with acute cases of depression and bi-polar disorder, Dieter said.
"It has become like HMO approval," she said. "Mental-disability support is often on the chopping block."
The state supported hundreds of mental illnesses that STEP treated in the past, but in September the number was whittled down to 19 illnesses.
Dieter said STEP's professionals realize that employment training is one small aspect in client development. Taking care of the whole individual entails food and housing programs, office parties -- even outings to the opera, plays and baseball games.
"Around the holidays, it's good to have a place with other people to come to," Scholtz said.
'Dignity through work'