It’s the classic American dream—to build a business from the ground up and watch it flourish into a self-sustaining and, ultimately, lucrative endeavor.
Unfortunately, people with serious mental illness often lack such dreams. Some may even have difficulty finding their way into the workplace because of troublesome psychiatric symptoms and stigmatizing attitudes from superiors and coworkers.
Now, people with serious mental illness have a shot at becoming successful entrepreneurs with a 15-session training program offered by the Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation (BEDC). The BEDC is a private, nonprofit organization established in 1979 to create job opportunities for and offer entrepreneurial training to Brooklyn, N.Y., residents.
The training program is offered as part of the Lead, Act, Undertake, Navigate, Change, and Heal (LAUNCH) program and teaches clients with a history of mental illness the ABCs of starting a business: creating a business plan, securing funding, budgeting and handling finances, and marketing, for instance.
So how did a neighborhood economic center become a place of hope for people with mental illness?
In a roundabout way, according to BEDC President and CEO Joan Bartolomeo, who said she became interested in assisting disabled people when a friend with a physical disability pointed out that many people with disabilities have become "marginalized in life" and trapped on a disability income that barely supports the most meager existence. "If you’re alone, you’re living below the poverty line," she told Psychiatric News.
Many programs designed to help people with disabilities, Bartolomeo noted, were part of the problem as well, since benefits usually stop when a disabled person begins earning even a modest income.
Although there were programs that taught disabled people the skills they need to get a job, Bartolomeo found none whose goal was self-employment. "There seemed to be a fear that self-employment was too risky—that people with disabilities could never make it on their own."
While serving as chair of the board of trustees of the Brooklyn Psychiatric Centers Inc., a unique opportunity presented itself to Bartolomeo: a three-year grant proposal from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to fund entrepreneurial training to people with mental illness.
She applied for the grant but figured "it was a long shot at best" since such programs are typically operated out of mental health settings, she said.
She told health department officials in an interview that mental illness shouldn’t stop someone from receiving entrepreneurial training at the BEDC. "We teach people how to start their own businesses or how to better operate their businesses—if someone comes to us with motivation, we’re there for them."
Applicants to the LAUNCH program are first screened by staff at Brooklyn Psychiatric Centers Inc. and must be at least 18 months beyond a major episode of mental illness or active drug and alcohol use to be eligible for the business training.
After the mental health screening, according to Program Director Joe Geneve, LAUNCH staff assess candidates to learn more about their educational background, business experience, interests, and skills. "If a person has an idea for a business venture," he said, "we determine whether it is a reasonable one, or if it’s a good choice for that person."
Geneve had worked as high-school teacher and technology manager for Merrill Lynch, among other positions, before coming to the BEDC in the early 1990s.
In addition to classroom and individual instruction, LAUNCH clients receive life-skills coaching and mental health support services as needed through the Brooklyn Psychiatric Centers.
Geneve said, "LAUNCH participants closely resemble the participants in traditional entrepreneurial training programs." She believes that ideally "all low-income entrepreneurs should receive extensive support, technical assistance, and counseling to increase their chances of success."
About 20 clients have received individual or classroom instruction since the LAUNCH program began in April.
Once the classroom work stops, the relationship between LAUNCH staff and clients continues. "We always hope that when a client comes in to us, we can embark on a long-term relationship," said Bartolomeo, who expects to provide continuing support to clients as their businesses evolve.
The first fruit of the LAUNCH program training—a beauty salon in lower Manhattan—opened its doors this month, according to Geneve. Other business ventures expected to take wing include a day care center and landscaping enterprise.
Gary Mizel, a LAUNCH participant who receives individual instruction, would like to see a play he wrote performed on stage. The play, titled "Memoirs of a Manic Depressive," is based in part on his experiences with bipolar disorder.
Now 52, he said he had achieved success years ago in real estate and the oil industry but "went under" when the economy turned sour in the 1980s. It was around that time, he said, that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Although Mizel said he prefers to disclose his mental illness to potential funders or others in the business community, he knows there is some risk. "If stigma is one of the reasons for being rejected, it is not made obvious," he noted.
Over the years, Mizel said that the psychosis related to his mania interfered with his ability to make a living. "When I was hospitalized, everything I’d been working on would come crashing down—so I’d always be in the position of having to start from scratch."
Mizel said he has since found a medication that works for him and has been stable for years.
Although their life goals and business plans may vary, LAUNCH participants likely share in the experience of stigma. "My sense is that at least some of the class participants expect to be ignored, snubbed, and even feared" in the workplace or discriminated against when applying for credit, Geneve said.
"This is a sad commentary on our society, which seems not to recognize that for many the world has improved dramatically with the newer drugs and treatment regimens," he added.
Instructor Ed Rutland, who teaches LAUNCH participants the finer points of starting a business, called his students "committed" and "hard working."
He also sees "a tremendous amount of support among LAUNCH students—they bounce ideas off of one another and encourage one another to continue. . . .The class becomes its own support group."
More information about the LAUNCH program is posted on the Web at www.bedc.org/launch_01.htm. ▪