Presentation to discuss the power of employment for people with mental illnesses

PITTSBURG — Seven years ago she applied for disability, now she has the word “director” in her title. 

Stephanie West-Potter (no relation to the author), now the communications and outreach director at Disability Rights of Center-Kansas in Topeka, spent her twenties not feeling well. 

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder West-Potter at first did not go to her employers to let them know that she had a mental illness. Now informed of her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and other available resources, looking back, West-Potter said she now realizes the support that was accessible to her. 

West-Potter is currently working on spreading this information to the community, to inform people about employment rights under ADA, tips on requesting accommodations, disclosing a diagnosis at work, and resources which are available to find and keep a job such as Ask Jan.

On Sept. 9 West-Potter will present “The Power of Employment” at 3 p.m. at the Crawford County Mental Health Center Glass Pavilion located at 3011 N. Michigan St., Pittsburg. A second presentation will be at 6:30 p.m. at South Broadway Baptist Church located at 1218 S. Broadway, Pittsburg. The event is sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Southeast Kansas. 

Originally from Girard, West-Potter had been active in the “disability community” in various ways. She’s worked at group homes and after school and summer programs for children with autism. 

With bipolar disorder, she found that having a job or a career was difficult. According to the National Institute of Mental Health Information Resource Center, “bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.”

Although she felt sick for the majority of her twenties, West-Potter said she became involved in volunteering and became active in her community, and later made plans to find a career. 

She received an email from NAMI about a position as an advocate for people with disabilities and from there she was promoted to a new position, and now travels to share about disability rights. 

Topics of discussion include accessibility, disability rights and why it’s important for people with disabilities to vote. Employment and mental illness is one of her “biggest passions”. 

“My job changed my entire life,” West-Potter said. “I know how important employment is to recovery when it comes to mental illness.

“There are so many things having a job provides.” 

Jobs provide a social responsibility and accountability to show up, she said, and also provides support. 

“The more support the better,” West-Potter said, adding, “you also have a sense of pride and you feel like a part of a community.” 

According to West-Potter, the unemployment rate of people with mental illness is at 80 percent and according to West-Potter, 67 percent of them want to work. 

“A lot of people don't realize it’s [mental illness] covered under ADA,” she said. “There are accommodations people can get at work to make sure they are successful.”

It all starts with a conversation, West-Potter said. 

“First you must disclose, you can’t get accommodations if you don't know they exist,” she said. “It’s a very hard thing to do because stigma is so strong and people are afraid.

“I always tell people you'd be surprised.” 

In West-Potter’s presentation she will discuss ways to prepare to disclose a mental illness to an employer, including confidence. 

“Confidence is a really big part to be able to talk about something that is so personal,” she said.