SOAR and Employment Comes Full Circle at the 11th Judicial Circuit Criminal Mental Health Project in Miami, Florida

Justin Volpe has been employed as a peer specialist with the 11th Judicial Circuit Criminal Mental Health Project in Miami, Florida, since 2008. As a certified peer recovery specialist, Justin is one of the first people program participants meet upon release from jail. In his role, he walks alongside participants, offering encouragement and practical assistance to promote successful recovery and community living. Justin understands the importance of helping others connect to their inner strength, motivation, and desire to move forward in life, even when experiencing challenges. He can engage an individual on a level that a judge, attorney, or treatment provider cannot because Justin Volpe has firsthand knowledge of the importance of ensuring the availability of mental health and substance use treatment services for people involved in the legal system.

Justin was also the 11th Judicial Circuit Criminal Mental Health Project’s (CMHP) first SOAR applicant. The CMHP SOAR team assisted with Justin’s application, and he was approved for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) in the fall of 2007. Currently, Justin continues to succeed in his recovery from the experience of addiction and homelessness and to manage his mental health through treatment, medication, and work. Benefits acquisition plays a part in Justin’s success.

Admittedly, Justin shares that he initially resisted the encouragement to apply for Social Security Disability benefits. He stated, “I was so ill that I did not want disability. I just wanted to work. I always worked. I had paid into disability since I was 14. It’s good for people to work. I didn’t know that I could work during that time. When I found out [that I could work and still receive benefits], all of the pieces of the puzzle fit together. Most people want to work.” He further stated that it was the encouragement of his family that prompted him to apply. As he reflects on the benefit of being awarded SSDI, he said, “It was a stepping stone to get back in the swing of things.”

Justin also emphasized how important it was for him to take the time to focus on his mental health while “easing back into work” by working part-time from 2008 to 2014. He states, “That time allowed me to not stress so much. The insurance [from SSDI] helped me get my medication, and there were trials with that. Medications made me tired, and I needed the time to regulate my meds. It would have been more challenging if I went full time and not allow [myself] the space to do that. The insurance helped with therapy and outpatient psychiatry. It’s helped me. I am not sure if I would have been able to do that if I jumped in full time right away.”

Justin’s shared his thoughts for service providers, “There needs to be more general training programs to find meaningful work and survive. Most of the people I know want to work, but the reality is that it is not enough to live off.”

He also shares thoughts for people who may be receiving benefits that want to work, “If you have to take a little on at a time to get there, it’s ok. Ease people back into work…it benefits the entire community. You don’t have to be on it [Social Security] forever. Working is good for people…it’s good for the community. People can work.”

When asked how his life has changed since 2007, Justin states, “It’s good. I am a homeowner. I have a wife. I have a son. My worst day working, even while in recovery, is still better than my best day before I received treatment.”

Although the income and insurance that accompany Supplemental Security Income/SSDI may help alleviate some of the barriers associated with housing and treatment, SOAR specialists must consider the stigma some may feel about receiving benefits and the perpetual myths about working while receiving or applying for Social Security benefits. It is important to discuss work with potential applicants, address any hesitancy about applying for benefits, and allow the person who would rather work, despite their symptoms, the resources to do so. The misconception that both work and benefits cannot co-exist can lead to continued unsuccessful work attempts—further delaying access to income and insurance for people that need them most. SOAR providers, like CMHP, work hard to debunk those myths and encourage work.

CMHP provided SOAR services successfully, and Justin was approved for SSDI. SSDI provided the insurance and access to Justin’s treatment. With treatment, Justin became healthier and maintained work. He has worked full-time in his role as a valued, certified peer support specialist at the 11th Judicial Circuit Criminal Mental Health Project in Miami, Florida, since 2014.

SOAR works.