The Power of Second Chances: Employment After Treatment

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

In this Sunday’s Washington Post, I came across “Help Wanted: One Second-Chance Job” by Jim Arkedis. In the article, Jim tells the story of his mentee, Tim Cofield. Tim is 55 years old, bipolar-schizophrenic, battling substance abuse, rotating in and out of jail, and unable to acquire what Jim deems the most important stepping stone in Tim’s recovery: a job.

I was moved by Tim’s story, however it made me even more empathetic to the situation faced by our clients at Phoenix House—most of whom are in much less dire straits than Tim. Even without co-occurring disorders (like Tim’s addiction and mental illness) our clients struggle to find employment when they leave treatment. This is despite the fact that, according to the Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development, individuals in recovery from substance abuse do as well or better at work than those who have no history of addiction.

As a Certified Vocational Rehabilitation counselor, I know that to be successful after treatment, our clients desperately need to be part of the community—and this usually means being employed. For someone with Tim Cofield’s debilitating diagnoses, volunteering may be the best option, but the majority of our clients are entirely capable of competitive employment. They have completed treatment and are no different from any candidate with a manageable chronic condition—be it asthma, diabetes, or addiction. Today’s economy, however, is a buyer’s market.

At our Phoenix Career Academy in Brooklyn, New York, our goal is to teach clients the tools they need to return to the job market. They choose one of our vocational training programs—which include our Beyoncé Cosmetology Center, our culinary arts program, and our carpentry course, among others. When they leave treatment, they have a marketable skill. After that, their fate is largely in the hands of potential employers. We do offer supplementary services like interview coaching, but some companies still view our clients as somehow “less-qualified” than equally skilled candidates who have not had a substance abuse problem.

Our clients want to work. Employment helps them feel valuable, and allows them to live their lives as productive members of society. “I just want to be normal,” they tell me, or “I want to give back.” In the world of substance abuse, occupying your time is a big part of what keeps you in recovery; work keeps you focused, on track, and out of destructive cycles.

Unfortunately, that destructive cycle is all that some people know. They use drugs, go to jail, get on probation, and repeat. There aren’t enough support services for this population, and not enough employers are willing to hire them. This is a disadvantage for both the individual and the potential employer; most companies don’t realize that individuals with disorders like addiction are actually extremely skilled in a variety of areas. Once hired, these individuals are often devoted workers who perform well, learn quickly, and improve exponentially.

So how can we bridge the gap between job training and actual employment? Jim Arkedis, who wrote Tim Cofield’s story in the Washington Post, insists “we need quality programs that place those with troubled pasts in stable jobs…in the long run, I’ll bet the employers and the community would benefit.” I couldn’t agree more.

At Phoenix House, we do our best to help our clients be creative and stay engaged after treatment, because we know that they can be successful. A job adds meaning to life, cultivates self-value and provides a safe and substance-free place to go every day. Most importantly, people will rise to what is expected of them; if you give them responsibility, they will work that much harder to keep it.

To all the potential employers out there: if you want qualified candidates, give our folks a shot. They are just as bright, as qualified, and as well-trained as anyone else submitting a resume—but they are even more motivated to succeed.

Jasmine Rodriguez, M.S.Ed, CRC
Director of Vocational Services
Phoenix Career Academy

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  • Not surprised…I am so glad that this article has come to light. I have extremely advanced marketable skills that could place me in any environment professionally. Being a fast learner and dedicated to any task given, I find it very easy to enter the corporate or private sector and find employment. I choose instead to educate myself in the field of Substance Abuse and Addiction so that I too may one day become employed by Phoenix House or any other advocate in the fight against addiction. Here is where the value of what you have to offer another human being is truly honored. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Thank You Phoenix House for helping me to help myself in my pursuit to help others.

  • For a year I was the vocational supervisor for Fairbanks Community Mental Health and I can’t agree more with Jasmine. The evidence is overwhelming that when our clients are able to be productive members of society, the quality of their life and the ability to stay sober increase radically.

  • Having worked in addiction treatment for over 25 years now, I am often struck by how narrow-minded we were “back in the day.” It used to be that our only measure of treatment effectiveness was if an individual was drug-free–we did not seem to care much about things like engagement in education, gainful employment, safe housing, or healthy lifestyles. Now, as the NIDA Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment points out, treatment needs to attend to multiple needs of the individual–a much better approach. At Phoenix Houses of the Mid-Atlantic, we are getting ready to roll out a vocational training project for our long-term residential clients, for example. Let’s hope we always continue to grow, improve, and strengthen the services we offer!

  • Engagement is vital to long term success and recovery. If you are not interested or focused its easy to fall back into the old way of doing things. Keep up the good work!