OBJECTIVE. The objective of this phenomenological study was to understand the meanings of the lived experiences of persons with long-term mental illness at a social working cooperative.

METHOD. Eighteen participants were interviewed either two or three times while participating in a working cooperative in a community psychosocial rehabilitation program. Data were analyzed and interpreted using the Empirical, Phenomenological, Psychological (EPP) method (Karlsson, 1993).

RESULTS. The findings revealed a meaning-structure consisting of one main constituent that characterized the cooperative as a normalizing life-world. Three phases contributed to the normalization process. In the first phase the participants experienced a shift from an unsatisfying occupational context to an enriching occupational life-world. In the second phase participants had the possibility to satisfy some of their occupational and social needs. During this phase, experiences of being productive and needed, commitment to others, development of their skills, and competence in work tasks and social activities were expressed, all of which contributed to personal growth and a more positive view of self. In the third phase, the meaning of the cooperative changed for some participants, who expressed this through their readiness to leave and take a further step into the life-world outside the cooperative.

CONCLUSION. The study emphasizes that the cooperative is an important alternative to employment for participants with severe mental illness who do not have the capacity to be employed in the community or who do not want to leave the life-world of the cooperative that gives them pride, joy, and satisfaction.

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