Joy Kelson was unemployed for 2 1/2 years. Mental illness left behind a trail of jobs that didn't work out, days filled only with treatment and battered self-esteem.

Hospitals were decrying a shortage of nurses, but this licensed practical nurse couldn't get - or keep - a job. A pilot project operated by Valley Mental Health has changed the outlook for her future. The Consumer Case Aid Program hires consumers of mental-health services to manage the cases of other individuals with mental illness.Nellie Arrieta, job coach and program coordinator, trains and supervises nine former clients.

The program is part of a growing movement to help individuals who are mentally ill regain their self-esteem and find a place in the work force.

Several consumers who are rejoining the work force offered their ideas on employment Wednesday during a workshop at the two-day Public Mental Health Conference in Ogden. The conference is co-sponsored by the Utah Council of Mental Health Center Directors, the Division of Mental Health and the Utah State Hospital.

A major portion of Kelson's job is helping her clients receive benefits while they work toward independence. In the first year, project staff helped 135 people receive Medicaid and 122 get food stamps.

"I got to choose my own hours and schedules, which gave me a sense of control over my own life," Kelson said. "It has been an opportunity to be more honest with myself and with others. I feel like I don't have to hide my mental illness. If I'm in a crisis, I can talk it out; before, I'd lie."

Steve and Judy Geertsen were watching their marriage fall apart.

He had been unemployed for several years, the victim of severe depression. He tried school but couldn't do it. They moved. She got more involved in her own work and figured "he'd have to work it out."

He said he didn't know how to work it out. "I had lost what little confidence I had in myself."

Ultimately, he borrowed other people's confidence in him. That support came through Bear River Mental Health, where the self-proclaimed "couch potato" found himself doing things. In time, he began to work through the program. He now holds two part-time jobs.

"I had such an overwhelming amount of support, the confidence from other people started becoming part of me."

"He started going into the club," Judy said. "He was off the couch and, you know, I started to miss him. I realized that if I wanted him in my life, I'd have to find him."

She found him at a consumer club in Logan. Soon, she was involved in activities as well, including selling ice cream at the Ice Castle, run by mentally ill consumers and used to help fund programs and recreation.