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November 23, 2016

“The hardest part of my life was when I was motivated to do nothing.” Scott Waters, 53, had hit bottom. After more than 20 years, the voices in his head took over his life. His untreated mental illness had cost him several jobs and two marriages and it almost ended his life. He was jobless. He was hopeless. 

The stigma of mental illness

Mental illness affects one in five adults in any given year. The fear of being rejected and the stigma associated with mental health disorders keep some adults from getting the help they need as well as seeking and getting jobs.

“The stigma of mental illness makes job hunting even more difficult,” said Alfredo Aguirre, director of Behavioral Health Services for the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA). “It is unfortunate that negative attitudes and beliefs toward people who have a mental health condition are common.” Aguirre added that having a job helps to reduce the stigma of mental illness and helps to reduce people’s symptoms.  “Having something to do, like going to a job, can have a very positive impact in someone living with a mental disorder,” Aguirre said.

Seeing the value of employment as treatment, in 2013, the HHSA’s Behavioral Health Services Division led an effort in partnership with the Corporation for Supportive Housing and the San Diego Workforce Partnership to develop a county-wide strategic plan to increase employment for those with lived experience of mental illness.

The Supported Employment Initiative and Work Well Committee was created to work toward reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness, promoting mental health awareness in the workplace and increasing employment for those living with mental illness. Adults who are in recovery from mental illnesses overcome tremendous barriers and personal struggles, making them some of the most resilient, highly motivated and hardest working employees you can hire. Waters is one of those people.

Getting treatment

Without a job, Waters’ medical insurance and medication ran out. He turned to alcohol. It helped him to forget. Seven years ago, Waters walked into Exodus Recovery in Vista, a mental health assessment center funded by HHSA, and his life took a 180-degree turn. After being assessed, they referred him to the North Coastal Mental Health Center, another County-funded clinic for adults with severe and persistent mental illness. SDWP works directly with these clinics through HHSA’s Behavioral Health Services Division and the Supported Employment Initiative and Work Well Committee.

Waters now had access to treatment and therapy, but he also needed a support group. He was referred to Mariposa Clubhouse, one of 14 mental health clubhouses funded by the County and run by Mental Health Systems. Clubhouses serve as community meeting places and support settings for mental health clients, their friends and family and community members. They also help members improve their social skills and offer vocational training as part of their recovery. “For the first time, I was in an environment where people were talking about recovery,” Waters said. “At the clubhouse, I met people who understood.” This gave him the confidence to start working again.

On the road to recovery

Waters got a part-time job as a peer specialist. “Everything started moving in a positive direction,” said Waters. “I gained a leap of confidence that I did not have since my 20s when everything was a struggle.” 

With a bolstered sense of recovery, Waters moved into a full-time peer specialist position. He was also attending mental health conferences and taking social work trainings. Earlier this year, Waters was promoted to case manager. He now helps clubhouse members identify their needs, set goals and access resources. Having a stable job has helped Waters to regain control of his life.

For more information about how to get involved with the Work Well Initiative, contact Mario Becerra, Program Specialist at 619-228-2902 or

People suffering from a mental illness can access services by calling the County’s 24-hour, multi-lingual Access and Crisis Line at (888) 724-7240. Resources are also available at the County’s It’s Up to Us website.




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