Joy Vick has never kept a job for very long during the past 20 years. In her work as a waitress, bus driver, or key punch operator, something as seemingly minor as spilled coffee or a rude remark would make her lose her temper. She would quit or be fired.

What she calls her poor work experience is a common result, she and her counselors say, of severe mental illness that has made it difficult for her and more than five million other Americans to realistically face the outside world.

Now Vick, 39, is making $3.10 an hour in a Fairfax County program that is among the first in the nation to help severely mentally ill people get and keep their own jobs through on-the-job training.

"It's not the job but the attitude you bring to it that counts," she said recently during a break in her work as a maintenance crew supervisor. "I'm getting a lot of support from the people here."

Vick and 44 other Northern Virginia residents, many of whom have been hospitalized briefly at some point for emotional disturbances, are enrolled in job programs run by Woodco Enterprises, Inc., a nonprofit branch of Fairfax County's Woodburn Mental Health Center.

"Our program is unique because we place people together in realistic work situations for 40 hours a week in the community," said Susan Lautenback, Woodco's program coordinator. "Many of these people have never developed friends before, or been shown the need to punch a time-clock to keep a job, or been encouraged to work at all.Here they work together, and help themselves," she said.

Traditional work programs for the mentally ill usually place the individually in competitive job situations that they can have to be handling, authorities said. Another traditional approach is to create in-house, or "sheltered", workplaces to avoid competitive pressures. Often these jobs are part-time.

By contrast, the Woodco program attempts to help people recovering from mental illness by placing groups of them in work situations for 40 hours each week. Woodco people now work on moving and hauling contracts, and building and landscape maintenance throughout Northern Virginia.

"Their program is unique because they put them in work situations where they gain strength from each other," said Bernard Posner, executive director of the President's Committee for Employment of the Handicapped. "These people have often been thought of as the dregs of society. They had no work habits because they could never get work, and no one would ever hire them so they could learn how to do it. I'd like to see more programs like Woodco," he said.

Nationally, as many as 30 million Americans may need mental health care, and as many as 5 million Americans are so handicapped by depression, schizophrenia and other disorders that they often have an difficult time functioning on even a minimal level, Posner said. The known causes of mental illness include organic brain damage, chemical disorders, and drug-induced problems, Posner said.

"The mentally ill have been stigmatized because the public was frightened of them. That added to their sense of isolation and worthlessness. This type of program is a first step up from nothing," he added.

The routine of mopping, dusting and raking debris at the 500-unit Pine Spring West apartment complex on Lee Highway in Fairfax County has provided Joy Vick with the kind of stability formerly lacking in her life. "I worry that the excitement will fade from this job. I worry because I want something that's stable," said Vick, who has been in Woodco's program since March.

Peter Jaye, 21, who has worked on Vick's cleanup crew for a month, said his previous work problem included arguing and fighting with coworkers at various minimum wage jobs he held. "I never worked any place longer than a month, because 'i'd quit," Jaye said softly. "This is the best thing I've ever had."

Carolyn Ines, 35, another crew member who was hospitalized briefly several years ago because of emotional problems, said she has set for herself "the goals of looking directly at people when I talk to them, listening to them when they talk to me, and working smoothly with my coworkers."

The ultimate goal of the Woodco program, which has a $600,000 annual work independently, Lautenback said. Sixteen people have "graduated" from the program since it started last July, and are now working at competitive jobs, including maintenance, construction, and office work, she said.

Because people earn money on the program, with an average hourly wage of $2.35, they do not have to take government support funds, Lautenback added.

"They are doing an excellent job," said Ralph May, property manager of the Pine Spring West complex. "It's difficult for us to keep maintenance people, so we love having the Woodco group because they do the work every day. And the tenants are thrilled because the place looks so good," he said.