Working Like Crazy

Susan Ashby, pictured here as one of the couriers, has her own series of cook books. Samples will be at the festival.

WORKING LIKE CRAZY is a warm, funny and moving film. It is about people surviving, reciaiming their lives and asserting the power of hope.

When Bruce Saunders travelled to Rendezvous with Madness to see the film he was able to video tape the panel discussion that followed which included director Laura Sky, Diana Capponi, long time organizer of consumer businesses in Toronto (and activist Pat Capponi's sister) , and one of the principal participants in the documentary ---- Highlights of that discussion will be presented.

Co-director Laura Sky has been making independent documentary films and teaching film studies since 1972. She established Sky Works Charitable Foundation. In 1981 to produce educational flims and adult education videotapes. Sky has produced and directed three Feature length documentaries about health care issues. Co-director Gwynne Basen's directing credits include the award-winning, two-part series ON THE EIGHTH DAY: PERFECTING MOTHER NATURE (1992) that examined the implications of the new reproductive and genetic technologies. She lives in Montreal.

Working Like Crazy will be released by NFB this Spring. For more info link to "more Working Like Crazy" ---------------------------

The National Film Board in Co-production with, SkyWorks and in association with TV Ontario Presents Working Like Crazy A one-hour documentary film by Gwynne Basen and Laura Sky, Working Like Crazy documents the lives of six people who have

been labeled "crazy" and unemployable. Refusing to accept these barriers, a group Of psychiatric survivors--people who have been treated for mental Illness are changing their lives. They have. created their own community businesses.

They do real work for real money. They are the managers, staff and members Of U10 boards Of directors Of businesses like Away Express Couriers, the Hanging Spoon Restaurant and Fresh Start Cleaning Service.

It is estimated that 86% of people who have been labeled as mentally ill am unemployed. Most are poor and many are homeless. At the center of Working Like Crazy are the personal stories of these men and women whose lives are being transformed by something most of us take for granted-,a decent Job.

Working Like Crazy is warm, funny and moving film. It is about people surviving' reclaiming their lives, and rebuilding hope.


WORKING LIKE CRAZY is a one-hour documentary that chronicles the daily struggles and victories of 3 psychiatric survivors working in survivor businesses. Labeled 'unemployable,' they have broken their isolation and given themselves a safe space in a community of their peers, a place where they can earn income and begin to rebuild their lives.

Courier Susan Ashby's love of animals has transformed her in the eyes of the neighborhood children - from the 'cuckoo lady' to the 'rat lady, - a designation that she much prefers. (She's also known for a series of terrific and practical cook books)

Laurie Hall's incredible journey has taken her from the peeling paint on the walls of the old Whitby Hospital to a position as executive director of A-Way Express Couriers.

Diana Capponi has turned the grief and rage of family violence into a passion for justice that infuses her work for the Ontario Council of Alternative Businesses. (Pat Capponi is her sister)

Scott Benness works for Fresh Start Cleaning. The vocational rehabilitation system told that he could do nothing.

Graham Brown. another cleaner, struggles to find an alternative to sleeping his life away, dulled by medication and poverty. "Day one... the plan," he intones, "the plan to get back to being a man."

Patricia Fowler also knows what it is like to use medication to get the day over with. Surprised to have lived into her 40`s, she has fought a crushing sense of worthlessness to become indispensable as OCAB's administrative assistant.

WORKING LIKE CRAZY is a warm, funny and moving film. It is about people surviving, reciaiming their lives and asserting the power of hope.

W0RKING LIKE CRAZY is a co-production of the National Film Board and Skyworks Charitable Foundation in association with TV Ontario. It was produced with the participation of the Ontario Council of Alternative Businesses and the In Your Face Learning Academy, OCAB's research and training arm. The film received additional funds from the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health, and the Trillium Foundation. INFORMATION AND DISCUSSION GUIDE WORKING LIKE CRAZY documents the lives of six employees of 'alternative businesses' located in Toronto. These enterprises are run and staffed by people who have been diagnosed as "mentally ill."

Psychiatric survivor communities are varied and complex. Opinion on psychiatric treatment ranges from support for established practices to support for abolishing the existing system. Members share in common the alienating process of of assessment, diagnosis, treatment and often institutionalization. Psychiatric survivors are misunderstood, feared and subject to low expectations from the general public. They are often poor and inadequately housed or homeless. The estimated rate of unemployment for this group is 85%.

Ten questions people ask:

1. How do psychiatric survivor businesses get started? An essential first step is to find or form a group of people who have been through the psychiatric treatment system. Members then meet and talk (sometimes over a period of years), find out about each other's skills, and decide together how to proceed. As they confront and solve the problems of business development, they gradually acquire a sense of community. It is this sense of community that enables people to make significant changes in other areas of their lives.

2. Who can work in these businesses? They were created to employ psychiatric survivors, particularly those who were classified permanently unemployable" as well as "mentally ill." The businesses do not screen for the most skilled and experienced. Most take applications on a first come, first served basis. Currently, there are long waiting lists caused by tremendous need and inadequate resources.

3. Is the work full-time? Survivor businesses provide primarily permanent part-time jobs. Employees support themselves with both earned income and social assistance (general welfare or public disability pensions). In Ontario, for example, people on welfare/disability pension are allowed to earn only $160 before they face deductions on their earnings of 75 cents on every dollar. If you are making $10.00 per hour, you have reached your limit after only 16 hours. This regulation is a disincentive to work. In spite of it, some employees work full-time just to keep active.

4. If these employees want to work more, why don't they just come off their benefits? Some do. But, in Ontario, one benefit of the provincial disability pension is a drug card that pays for prescription medications. Many of the people who work in survivor businesses take psychiatric medications on a long term basis. Some of these drugs are very expensive. For example: Olanzapine, an anti-psychotic drug prescribed for some people diagnosed with schizophrenia costs $422.00 per month. If employees work enough hours to come off their pension, they lose the drug card that covers the cost of these medications. If they then become ill, it could take a full year to get back on benefits. Fear of this situation keeps most survivors from going it alone.

5. Who runs these businesses? Survivor businesses are run by the people who work in them. In addition to their paid work, employees learn to become decisions-makers through membership on boards and committees. For example, five members of the ten person board at A-Way Express are employees. The management team is comprised of employees in key positions; full staff meetings are held once a month. This enables the kind of democratic participation that was stripped away from people through psychiatric treatment.

6. How do the businesses deal with the special needs and life experience of their employees? In some ways, the needs of these employees are no more "special" than those of any other worker. Or particular importance, however, are flexible work hours. Most survivor businesses are organized to give time off to employees who request it without threat of job loss and without judging the employee irresponsible; planned absenteeism is not encouraged, but it is accepted. By modifying their work hours, taking chunks of time when needed, or picking their best hours to work, survivors can both work and take care of themselves.

7. Is there a role for mental health professionals? Survivor businesses do not employ professionals for skills assessments, job skills training, or clinical/therapeutic services. Instead, the businesses rely on peer training and support; teaching is an ongoing, hands-on process between employees. Service providers and members of the general public contribute their expertise as consultants or board members but rarely as staff.

8. How are the businesses funded? Survivor businesses operate using a combination of public dollars and employee generated revenues. In Ontario, grant moneys from the Ministry of Health cover core administrative expenses while employees generate the revenue to pay their own salaries. Last year, for example, couriers who work at A-Way Express earned $135,000. in revenue for the company.

9. If these are real businesses, why aren't they self-sufficient? What is self-sufficient? Survivor businesses cost the Ministry of Health less than other community initiatives and certainly less than institutional services. Using conservative numbers, the estimated savings are roughly $13,000 per survivor per year. That adds up to big savings for the system. Big businesses such as Air Canada, the Royal Bank or Bombardier are very costly to maintain as well!

10. Are these businesses successful? Yes, but on their own terms. Financial profits and improvement in the general functioning of their employees are not necessarily the bottom line. Survivor businesses are also concerned with number of work hours created, number of employees involved in the business and the ability of these employees to sustain employment over time. They are concerned with mobilizing and empowering the survivor community through learning, participation and relationship. Success is a sense of ownership, a voice in making decisions.

Suggestions for policy makers increase the amount of funding allocated for survivor business development; provide education and training for consumers/survivors so that they can take up new roles developing survivor businesses; provide education and training for mental health professionals so that they can become more effective partners in support of these initiatives; institute a public education campaign to reduce stigma and discrimination. reduce the disincentives to work by raising the limits on allowable earnings for people on disability pensions; institute a graduated 'claw-back' on earnings over the allowable earnings limits to replace the current 75% level.

Recommended readings

Capponi, p. Upstairs in the Crazy House: The Life of a Psychiatric Survivor. (1992, Toronto: Penguin Books.)Shimrat, I. Call me Crazy: Stories from the Mad Movement. (1997, Vancouver, Press Gang Publishers.)

Church, K. Business (not quite) as usual: psychiatric survivors and community economic development in Ontario. In Shragge, E. (ed.) Community Economic Development: In Search of Empowerment (Second edition). (1997, Montreal: Black Rose Books)

Church, K. Using the economy to develop the community: psychiatric survivors in Ontario. (1997, Ottawa: Caledon Institute of Social Policy.)

Church, K. Because of where we've been: the business behind the business of psychiatric survivor economic development. (1997, Toronto, Ontario Council of Alternative Businesses.)

Hartl, K. A-Way Express: a way to empowerment through competitive employment. (1993 Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health, 11 (2), pp. 73-77.)

Ontario Council of Alternative Businesses. Yes we can! promote economic opportunity and choice through community business. (1995, Toronto: OCAB.)

Trainor, J. and Tremblay, J. Consumer/survivor businesses in Ontario: challenging the rehabilitation model. (1992, Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health, 11 (2), pp. 56-71.)