VA Portland Health Care System
Veterans find a path to work and mental health
VA Portland's Vocational-Rehab team paves the way
By Anna Robaton-Winthrop
VA Portland Public Affairs Volunteer
As an Uber driver, John spends a portion of his days getting people where they need to go. To do so, John has traveled a long road himself.
For many years, the Navy Veteran struggled to manage to his mental illness, which made it difficult for him to keep a job and contributed to low self-esteem. By the time John was referred to the VHA Vocational-Rehabilitation (Voc Rehab) program, also known as the Therapeutic and Supported Employment Services program, at VA Portland Health Care System (VAPORHCS), he hadn’t worked for several years.
Offered throughout the Veterans Health Administration system, Voc Rehab helps Veterans, including those with serious mental illnesses, overcome barriers to employment and stay in the workforce.
In some cases, Veterans are placed in limited-term, paid positions, often within a VA medical center, that help them gain hands-on skills and reinforce behaviors that are critical to long-term employment, such as the ability to work well with others. In other cases, program participants work one-on-one with case managers who function as job coaches — helping Veterans identify appropriate, community-based job opportunities; apply for positions; prepare for interviews and, when appropriate, providing ongoing support with navigating job-related issues.
In the Portland metro area, Voc Rehab served more than 2,000 Veterans in 2018-2019. By returning to work, program participants often gain more than just a regular paycheck. Many also find a renewed sense of purpose and pride — not to mention much-needed social interaction.
“My main job is to get people from point A to point B, but the social interaction helps me a lot,” says John, 57, who first began to drive for Uber in February 2016 and has since earned more than 1,500 five-star ratings.
“The social interaction makes me feel good inside. Most people are nice and really appreciate what I do. That gives me a positive feeling inside. I feel I can accomplish this task, and that mental illness isn’t going to get the better of me. Not anymore,” adds John.
His journey back to the world of work wasn’t quick or easy. Long before John felt ready to try to return to work, he sought help with personal challenges through Footsteps to Recovery, Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center (PRRC).
The outpatient program promotes skill building, socialization and the development of coping strategies for Veterans with chronic mental illnesses. Participants are asked to consider what will make their lives more meaningful and manageable — perhaps even joyful — and they work with staff members to set goals that reflect their desires.
John set out to build his self-confidence through the Footsteps program, and he achieved his goal through volunteer activities and classes that helped him challenge negative thinking, better cope with his illness and improve his social skills. In 2016, John’s peers in Footsteps elected him to serve as the program’s Veterans’ representative, a volunteer role that entailed some public speaking.
“The Footsteps program helped me to understand that my illness is not who I am. It helped me to understand that I can resolve issues and have a positive impact on my life and on my family. I can be more than just John who has this illness,” he said.
After about a year and a half in the Footsteps program, John felt ready to try to return to work and met with a case manager in the Voc Rehab program to develop a plan for doing so.
Uber turned out to be a good fit for John in more ways than one. The job met his desire to work part-time, sitting down and in a low-stress environment. It has also helped him to strengthen his social skills — as an Uber driver he encounters all types of passengers — and gain a renewed sense of pride in his own abilities.
An introvert by nature, John works to anticipate the needs of his passengers. Some want to sit in silence. Others prefer to chat, and John obliges, often working in a good-natured joke or two. He also carries complimentary bottles of water, chewing gum, cell-phone charging cords and local maps and restaurant guides for out-of-towners.
Thanks to the social-skills training he received through the Footsteps program, he’s learned not to take things personally if he gets a less-than-perfect rating from a passenger, which apparently doesn’t happen often.
“Since returning to work, he’s really blossomed,” said Carey Taylor, John’s case manager in the Voc Rehab program.
“He was very introverted when I first met him. He’s really learned to read people,” added Taylor, who has seen first-hand the therapeutic benefits of returning to work after an extended absence from the workforce.
Even after John returned to work, Taylor continued to provide support, meeting John monthly to help him track his Uber earnings and complete paperwork needed to maintain his Social Security disability benefits.
What advice does John have for Veterans who have shared his struggles and worry that they might never be able to return to work?
There is hope and help, if you’re open to it, says John.
“A lot of people my age that had my problems wouldn’t want to go back to work,” said John, recalling his own reluctance to participate in the Footsteps program.
“Get in there, share your story and hear what other people are going through,” said John, referring to the Footsteps program. “You can realize that there is a future for you outside of your mental illness.”
VHA Vocational Rehabilitation (Therapeutic and Supported Employment) Services - (360) 696-4061 Ext. 31274
VA Portland Mental Health Services - 503-273-5187
Footsteps to Recovery Program - 503-220-8262 ext. 55328
VA Portland Eligibility / Enrollment Services Office - 503-220-8262 Ext. 55069