Let’s Include People with Mental Illness in the Diversity and Inclusion Discussion

Carolyn Naseer (middle) from “My Change Agent” introduced me to the team at the Farm at Penny Lane

As a diversity consultant and trainer, I enjoy how much the diversity and inclusion field continues to evolve and expand into new areas (link to blog.) One of the key constituencies that many organization and companies now focus on is full inclusion of people with disabilities. But so often left out of the discussion are those with severe and persistent mental illness. Can they have a productive place in our society? And are they even employable?

A thoughtful and innovative program which can become a model for efforts worldwide is the Farm at Penny Lane in rural Chatham County, North Carolina, but still within 30 minutes of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. I recently visited the facility to explore and witness their outstanding work.

I was introduced to the Farm at Penny Lane by a consulting colleague, Carolyn Naseer from “My Change Agent,” (link), a boutique management consulting firm with a focus on making a positive impact through collaboration. She is currently assisting the Farm at Penny Lane through XDS, Inc., the non-profit with which the Farm at Penny Lane as one of their initiatives.

Thava Mahadevam and Matt Ballard proudly showing off their “small home” model.

During my visit to their beautiful peaceful 40 acres just north of Pittsboro, I met Director Thava Mahadevam, Social Worker Matt Ballard, and Farmer Jessamine Hyatt. They all passionately shared about their work with me. Some of the current efforts around “whole person health” that are helping people with mental illness gain self-worth include:
• Utilizing people with mental illness to assist with farming and packaging efforts, including growing healthy food and caring for egg-laying chickens.
• Training emotional support dogs, which can often even more therapeutic than meeting with a human counselor.
• Building of small homes in a cluster community environment to provide space for people to productively live on their own.

So often there is negative stigma around suffering with a mental illness, and we all need to be more understanding and caring, providing pathways for recovery and enhanced quality of life. And providing employment, which many of us admittedly dislike and would prefer vacations and holidays instead, is actually a great way of engaging people with mental illness to provide them purpose and meaning. And the staff even refer to those with mental illness serving in these jobs as “volunteers” instead of “patients.”

The colorful building where volunteers train emotional support dogs

The vision of the farm, established through a partnership with the non-profit XDS Inc and the University of North Carolina Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health, is for “our community members with severe mental illness to live longer, healthier, inclusive, and more self-sufficient lives. And their mission: “The Farm at Penny Lane partners with individuals with mental illness to grow nutritious food for themselves and others and offers integrated, community-based, therapeutic programs in an inclusive farm setting.”

I inspect the tomato plants with social worker Matt and farmer Jessamine

Perhaps in the future, industry may even be able to learn from this model to provide meaningful employment for people with mental illness, which will benefit the individuals, the companies, society and our economy!

To schedule a visit and learn more about this uplifting work, do peruse The Farm at Penny Lane’s website. And volunteers and financial support are truly welcomed, check out their “get involved” page.