One Size Fits All? Exploring the lived experiences of women with "mental health problems" in an outreaching activation program in the social workplace
Vakgroep Orthopedagogiek Universiteit Gent Gent, België
Social Welfare Studies Universiteit Gent Gent, België
This article is based on an evaluative survey in the context of a pilot activation program for women with "mental health problems" and additionally diagnosed problems of drug addiction in the context of a social workplace in East Flanders (a region in the Dutch speaking part of Belgium). Subsidized by the European Social Fund (ESF), the project managers set up an outreaching and innovative method in which three women with "mental health problems" were deployed to recruit, activate and "guide" other women of this "target group" to the social workplace. As part of the research project, the research team explored the insider perspectives on work aspirations and experiences of the eleven women involved in the program retrospectively to identify critical factors in their search for employment and to engage in a qualitative in-depth analysis. Some critical insights emerged and are illustrated. The women involved were positioned in a categorising niche that confirms the socially constructed notion of un-employability in the context of the social workplace that functions as an isolated men?s bastion. Symbolically relevant were the oversized overalls that women were forced to wear. However this one size fits all-approach reflects gendered social institutions and discourses guided by the abstract norm of a white middleclass bourgeoisie and by artificial boundaries between "normal" and "abnormal" men and women. This activation discourse and associated praxis mirrors a welfare-to-work agenda in which normative notions of citizenship are at work and instant employment status reigns. In line with the way how the women involved dealt productively with the complex amalgam of relevant problems and issues in their everyday lives, we want to challenge this unilateral one size fits all mantra. In that vein, we address implications in line with the emerging recovery paradigm of psychiatric system survivors, where to find and to loose a job is considered as an inherently meaningful and unique process of recovery and as part of lifelong career development.