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Report: Adults With Serious Mental Illnesses Face 80% Unemployment

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And SSI and SSDI can present a disincentive to find work, because beneficiaries who start a job may lose Medicaid or Medicare benefits. People in the programs have to prove that they are too sick to work full-time. If they make over a certain threshold, they can lose both their cash benefits and their health insurance.

“During recessions we see a spike in disability,” says David Wittenburg, a senior researcher at Mathematica Policy Research. It’s a trend that has been made worse by a shifts in the labor market.  “There’s an increasing demand for high-skilled labor, and sometimes people with disabilities get left behind.”

Once on SSI or SSDI, he adds, people are unlikely to get off: “The most common reasons for leaving the programs are death or retirement.”

Despite the numbers, NAMI’s Diehl says there’s reason to be hopeful. “Things are coming together right now to really make this a turning point” for individuals with mental illness, she says.  The economy is improving, and the mental health parity law in combination with new insurance options offered under the Affordable Care Act give people new ways to maintain their mental health benefits without staying on Social Security programs.

Mental health coverage, for example, is now a mandated benefit on plans purchased in the individual and small group marketplaces. And people with a mental illness can no longer be denied coverage for having a preexisting condition.

NAMI is calling on state legislatures to bolster their employment assistance to take advantage of the new options.

“If we were able to bring those programs to scale, then people with mental illnesses would be able to live independently and contribute to their local economies,” says Diehl. “The health care cliff is going away.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

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