You don’t have to be crazy to work here…

Opportunity Works promotes mental health through entrepreneurship


The first time I met Roberto Montagni was in June 2007 at a job interview with an agency called Opportunity Works. A plump middle-aged man with grey-white curly hair wire glasses and open features Montagni resembles a human teddy bear. He was one of my interviewers and this was his introduction.

It was fittingly frank in terms of the culture of the organization and I was immediately hooked. After working in oil and gas I was craving something different. This small non-profit seemed like the antithesis of corporate stifling cubicle-oriented bureaucracy. Here the working environment is open enough that staff members introduce themselves by name and mental illnesses.

Established in the spring of 1998 by The National Network for Mental Health (NNMH) Opportunity Works was the Calgary site of a nationwide research project on mental health issues and small business. According to Greg Oudman Opportunity Works’ first executive director “The NNMH believed that for some people with mental health issues the route of self-employment offered more self-control and more flexibility than a traditional nine to five. They believed that people with mental health issues could be successful entrepreneurs.” In a traditional workplace there are significant obstacles for people with mental health concerns such as inflexible hours and deadlines inadequate health benefits and a general unfamiliarity with mental illness that can lead to workplace discrimination and stigmatization.

There are also gaps in the work histories of those with mental health issues. These include limited employment experience fear anxiety and lack of confidence. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) the unemployment rate for people with serious mental illness ranges from 70 to 90 per cent. This statistic is alarming for two reasons. One at least 20 per cent of Canadians will directly experience a mental illness in their lifetime and the economic implications of high unemployment rates in this demographic is in the billions of dollars. Two work has been identified as a major component in establishing positive mental health so unemployment is detrimental to recovery.

Opportunity Works program participants are people suffering from emotional and mood disorders depression bipolar disorder obsessive-compulsive disorder schizophrenia and social anxiety among others. They are intelligent high-functioning people and many are highly educated. Montagni for example has a business degree from Concordia University and extensive experience in high-level financial accounting including work as a corporate controller. His illness however led to difficulties in retaining jobs. Montagni is quite matter-of-fact. After years of therapy talking about personal issues is normal and his sarcastic sense of humour shows through as he makes jokes about his experience.

In 1998 Montagni was going through a divorce and serious financial troubles. He started seeing a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with situational depression the common cold of mental health and prescribed Zoloft. Over the course of the next six months Montagni’s mood became very elevated. “I was saying inappropriate things being obnoxious really. I was acting aggressively just arguing with people over nothing juggling multiple unhealthy relationships and spending money on stupid things I didn’t need.” Eventually he was re-diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder. Characterized by abnormal fluctuation in mood varying between marked highs (mania) and lows (depression) with periods of stability bipolar affective disorder is a mental illness that affects 3.8 per cent of the population.

Montagni returned to work but while working as a financial co-ordinator at a non-profit agency his illness became more and more apparent. “When I was manic I was doing incredible work implementing financial controls and ensuring the agency was abiding by regulations. Other days I needed help because I couldn’t do my job. I was an enigma because I was doing excellent work and then shitty work. He was still in denial about his illness. There was something wrong with everyone else not with him. “Why take the meds?” he thought.

Finally unable to deal with the inconsistency Montagni was fired. His doctor told him to take three months of sick leave. At the end of his leave Montagni sought help from disability organizations in the city hoping to reintegrate himself into the workforce. With his experience and education Montagni was highly employable. Unfortunately few agencies were equipped to deal with him much less his particular mental health issues. After trying a few different agencies he was referred to Opportunity Works. The organization’s office is located in downtown Calgary on the second floor of a building owned by the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre and shared with another homeless agency called Inn from the Cold. The Mustard Seed Ministry is next door. It is not a posh area. Staff parking spots are located in an alley behind the building. It’s first-come first-served and the organization shares the space with shelters built by homeless people groups of crack-smoking youth and occasional addicts sprawled across the road.

The office itself is a hodgepodge of donated furniture with every inch of wall space covered by posters and flyers about mental health and business-related topics — an ad for the next Organization for Bipolar Affective Disorders (OBAD) meeting a handbill for a play put on by the Schizophrenia Society brochures for seminars at The Business Link. This jumble of signage reflects Opportunity Works’ diverse participants as well as its ties to small business. Business development after all is a primary goal of the organization. With a staff of less than eight over half are self-employment coaches and their main service is one-on-one business coaching.

Participants are paired with a coach. Coaches provide services tailored to each participant from skills assessment and business planning to marketing and mental health management support. Coaches are not trained psychologists or psychiatrists but each has personal experience with mental health issues and self-employment. Montagni for example runs an accounting business. Tim Sunquist another coach suffers from depression and has an extensive background in human resource management. This peer model is what makes Opportunity Works’ program unique. “Coaches and participants speak in a peer-to-peer as opposed to a normal doctor-patient model” says Sunquist “It’s an equal relationship. We’re people who have tried to start our own small businesses. We’re not experts but we speak from that lived experience. The idea is self-determination as opposed to a doctor or other mental health professional fixing participants or telling them what to do.”

The organization provides a level of support different than that provided by a mental health professional who may not necessarily share the experience of having endured a major depressive episode or a manic state whatever the case may be. The empathy provided by staff members who’ve experienced mental health issues is invaluable. “In the early years we had a reputation as a bit of a renegade organization because we were run by people with mental health issues before the concept of peer modeling was popular” says Oudman “But the most significant transformations can happen as a result of someone who walked in your shoes impacting your life.”

For Montagni it was a good fit. Soon after starting at Opportunity Works he identified accounting as one of his skills and worked towards marketing his services. His contract came from Opportunity Works and soon he secured further contracts with other non-profit agencies. However Montagni still experienced mental health concerns including some manic episodes. He worked with Sunquist to identify triggers and manage his mental health on a day-to-day basis. He realized there were different components he should be exploring in his life. “The holistic approach — it took awhile for me to finally get it — balancing economic well-being with my mental health self-management.”

Now as a coach at Opportunity Works Montagni works with people going through some of the same issues he’s struggled with. One such participant is Brian Pawluk. A sculptor with a fine arts diploma from Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD) and an master of fine arts from California’s Otis Art Institute Pawluk suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. In 1986 he was experiencing debilitating confusion and a distorted perception of reality — hearing voices hallucinating unable to focus on tasks or conversations with a sense that people were out to get him. He drifted from job to job doing day work and spent most of his time on the street until his mother finally got him into the hospital. He was put on Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) and began recovery. He sought support from various city organizations.

Pawluk came to Opportunity Works in 2001. An active sculptor and painter he now regularly shows his work at galleries. His work can be seen in parks across the city and he is a founding member of the Stone Sculptors Guild of North America.

Yvette Branker is another participant who has been with the organization since 2004. Diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar affective disorder in the early 1990s she has a bachelor of fine art in drama from the University of Calgary as well as a diploma in television writing and production. With dark curly hair and expressive features her theatre background is evident is her clear animated speaking manner. “I’m more internally goal-oriented” she says of her time at Opportunity Works. “I don’t want to play games — other agencies often just try to fill your time — I want to do something.”

“I used to worry when I met new people because they’d ask ‘what do you do?’ or ‘what are you doing now?’ But now I have something to say. I can say I’ve been running my own home-based craft business since 2003.”

Running a business is demanding and the challenges faced by participants are high. Success is self-defined and there are no time limits which produces mixed results. Some people start businesses and become economically self-sufficient learning to manage their mental health with little support. Others remain in the program for years are still on AISH and continue to struggle with their mental health. This is a plus according to Branker “You don’t really have to leave and you can work at your own pace. The time limit thing is really not productive for someone whose mental health status may not be getting better. For some of us these issues are not going away.”

It’s not a program for everyone. It fills a very specific niche in the mental-health-employment field but the goal of the program is work-life balance for participants with a stronger than average emphasis on the mental health component. Starting a company used to be a result of a midlife crisis or reckless sense of entrepreneurship. Today it is a way to establish some sense of stability in a workplace rife with layoffs downsizing and unreasonable bosses.

At Opportunity Works the self-employment model with some adjustments fits and allows people with mental health concerns who are potentially ill-suited for the traditional workplace the chance to become economically self-sufficient. “It allows a sense of ownership and power over their own destiny” says Sunquist.

The peer aspect lends itself to a different type of interaction between participants and staff and an atypical work environment. Because both staff and participants have mental health concerns there is no glamour or drama surrounding mental illness. Everyone is open about the kinds of mental health conditions they have experienced staff discuss suicide and debate the merits of self-determination over lunch and joke about medication because within the environment of the organization the issues are commonplace.

For me it’s been a crash course in mental health. The openness was breathtaking at first but now I expect everyone I meet outside the organization to be as honest about themselves as people at Opportunity Works.

The openness demonstrated by staff and participants is a large part of reducing stigma surrounding mental health. Another component in stigma reduction is the use of proper respectful mental-health terminology. Sometimes though clients are blunt. Laughing Roberto describes a recent intake call “I answered the phone the other day and this woman says ‘Oh is this Opportunity Works? Good. I’m crazy and I want to start a business.’”

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association and Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Mental Health:

• One in five Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime.

• Depression has overtaken cardiovascular disease as the fastest-growing category for days lost to disability across the country.

• The economic cost of mental illness in Canada for the health-care system was estimated to be at least $7.9 billion in 1998 — $4.7 billion in care and $3.2 billion in disability and early death.

• An additional $6.3 billion was spent on uninsured mental health services and time off work for depression and distress that was not treated by the health-care system.

• In 1999 3.8 per cent of all admissions to general hospitals (1.5 million hospital days) were due to anxiety disorders bipolar disorders schizophrenia major depression personality disorders eating disorders and suicidal behaviour.