Andrea Francis

Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star

Andrea Francis' life took a difficult turn a few years ago when she lost her job, couldn't find a new one and fell into a depression.

The stress strained her marriage, too, and her husband moved out.

With two daughters from a previous marriage to support and her current marriage in crisis, Francis became increasingly anxious and developed a panic disorder called agoraphobia. She didn't leave the house for more than eight months.

"We barely got by," she says. "I went through many days thinking, 'How are we going to make it?' "

Desperate, she found DKA Inc. Rehabilitation Services, which helps people with disabilities become employable, and then employed. "They worked with me and made accommodations for me," says Francis, 39. During her training, if she needed to sit by the door or step outside for a few minutes to regroup, they let her. For the last six months, she's been working at Angel Valley Funeral Home.

"It's going great," she says. "I know there are a lot of people out there that have the same thing I did, and I think it's important to say that you can come through it."

The challenges Francis faced are common barriers for those with temporary or chronic mental health problems. About 80 percent of people with serious mental illness are unemployed, says Clarke Romans, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Southern Arizona.

"The key thing, from my perspective, is if we were to better understand, if the community were to better understand, we would be less discriminatory in our hiring practices," he says. "People would much rather be contributing citizens than burdens on society."

People with mental illnesses, he says, are "smart, capable and with limitations."

The impact of a parent's mental health problems can be especially difficult on children, who struggle with unpredictable family environments, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry says.

Francis has been working hard to bring stability back to her family.

Her employers, Mike and DeeDee Orcutt, know about her struggles and are happy to be helping her move on with her life. "She's doing really well," Mike Orcutt says.

DKA owner Dot Kret seeks out employers like the Orcutts who believe everyone deserves a chance - and who can get creative to make it happen. Kret's passion for helping disabled people started when her childhood friend lost his strength, and then his ability to walk, due to muscular dystrophy.

"I remember him telling me that the second he went into a wheelchair, he became a nonperson," she says. Her life's mission is helping people realize there is no such thing as a nonperson.

Francis' DKA job coach, Lex Wilcox, says people with mental illness often come in feeling weak and see themselves as incapable. His job, he says, is to turn that around.

"There is stigma for someone living in poverty or for someone who is in poverty with mental health challenges," he says. "We have to be willing to give all people opportunities."

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at 806-7754 or