By Sharon Ferriss

Career development professionals recognize they are missing skills and knowledge to effectively support an increasing number of clients with mental illness in their job search and career planning, according to a new CERIC-funded project report. The report, entitled Charting the Course: Mapping the Career Practitioner Role in Supporting People with Mental Health Challenges, assesses the stigma clients with mental health challenges face, and identifies the skills career practitioners need to successfully support employment and social inclusion.

The report author Neasa Martin of Neasa Martin & Associates worked with the Nova Scotia Career Development Association to undertake a series of surveys, interviews and consultations around removing barriers to employment and improving access to career counselling. Key findings from the survey of 266 career development professionals and clients include:

  • A greater number of clients are presenting with mental health issues as a factor in their employment; 91% of career practitioners report that they are currently working with mental health clients and 57% agree that levels of disclosure within the counselling relationship are
  • Career development professionals themselves are not immune. Nearly half of practitioners (46%) report a personal experience with mental health problems. This rate is significantly higher than the population average.
  • To be effective, 96% of career practitioners acknowledge that they require special skills in motivating clients and ways to enhance work-related coaching skills specific to mental illness.
  • Career development professionals do not feel a high degree of confidence or comfort in working with mental health clients and clients appear to notice: 50% of mental health clients surveyed say practitioners do not have, and are not sharing, tools for coping with work-based challenges or, that, as clients, they receive good support in accessing work and training opportunities.
  • Both career professionals and clients identify stigma, discrimination and fear as the greatest barriers in returning to work. Both groups feel that employers are reluctant to hire people with mental illness and that lack of understanding decreases motivation to employ them.
  • Clients report their workplace accommodation needs are minimal such as: flexible hours to allow for appointments; occasional adjustment in deadlines and work timetables; and providing a less chaotic workspace when required.
  • It is well understood by career practitioners that some clients with mental illness face housing instability, loss of family and social support, difficulties accessing childcare, barriers to transportation and poorer overall health. These multiple challenges are recognized as making career planning more complex as are government program barriers and policies that limit client opportunities.
  • Career development professionals strongly endorse that work improves mental health and 89% believe that people do not need to be symptom-free to engage in employment. Practitioners feel clients are being discouraged by mental health professionals from pursuing work. A focus on disability rather than wellness or competence undermines the confidence of clients and discourages them from pursuing their goals.
  • For clients, the career practitioner relationship is very important. Given the stigma and discrimination towards mental illness, people want to be assured that their privacy will be respected and that they will be listened to without judgment. What clients want most reflects attitudes, beliefs and behaviours not knowledge-based skills.
  • Clients say they want to feel respected and included in decision-making. They want to be seen as people not the diagnosis and they want career development professionals to keep their focus on helping them pursue their career goals, not on providing mental health counselling.

The definition of a mental health problem used in the project report comes from the Mental Health Commission of Canada: “An emotional or mental health condition that may need treatment from a health professional. This includes any mental disorder that significantly interferes with a person’s functioning (mood & anxiety disorders, excessive stress, substance abuse, gambling disorder, etc.)”.

As the report states, employment is a cornerstone of social inclusion. It provides identity, purpose, meaning, social connections, as well as the financial resources needed to participate in one’s community. People living with mental health issues face the highest unemployment rate of any disability group and, for many, work remains an elusive goal.

Mental health-related illnesses are the fastest growing occupational disability within Canada and are the single biggest cause of workplace disability leave: 60% of workdays lost are due to depression and one in 20 workers will be diagnosed with a mental health problem/illness. Work-related mental illness and substance misuse is estimated to cost the Canadian economy $33 billion annually, the report cites.

In this context, career development professionals are a critical link to inclusion in the workforce for mental health clients. The report identifies multiple training needs for practitioners including: managing disclosure; targeted assessment tools, motivation and adult learning strategies; knowledge of local mental health resources; peer support and its role in employment; and understanding labour market opportunities.

Beyond developing educational resources and tools to improve the knowledge and skills of the career practitioner community, the report also identifies the opportunity for career development professionals and their associations to take on an advocacy role with government for better funding and accessibility of mental health services, noting that working collaboratively across disciplines and sectors will improve the quality of services.

The report makes four specific recommendations:

  1. Encouraging better co-ordination between mental health and career services;
  2. Partnering with consumers in developing training tools;
  3. Advocating for improved mapping, availability and access to mental health supports and services; and
  4. Addressing government program policies and funding practices that impede access to training and employment services for people living with mental health issues.

It concludes by stating that there is also a recognized need to engage and support employers in hiring people with mental health issues and for best practice guidance on how to successfully accommodate people in the workplace.

The final report can be downloaded from CERICs website at: To learn more about the project visit:


Sharon Ferriss is the Director, Marketing, Web & New Media with CERIC – Canadian Education and Research Institute for Counselling where she provides leadership in the development of all communications strategies for CERIC’s network of projects and programs, including the Cannexus National Career Development Conference, the ContactPoint website and The Canadian Journal of Career Development.

See the article from Kathy McKee, the Project Manager for the Nova Scotia Career Development Association, titled Change from Within. The article explores how career practitioners must be willing to examine their own core values about mental health and how this affects their work.