Mental health research center gets $4M

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A University of Illinois Chicago team has been awarded over $4 million to establish a research center focusing on the health and function of people with serious mental illness. 

Dr Judith Cook, Professor (RT)Department Psychiatry
Dr. Judith Cook, professor of psychiatry in the UI College of Medicine.

The center’s research will identify the needs of adults and youth during the COVID-19 pandemic and test interventions to help patients access medical care, learn illness self-management strategies and rebuild their lives. A comprehensive training program will complement these studies, including a project across the University of Illinois’ three medical campuses to prepare new physicians to best meet the medical needs of people with mental illnesses in the COVID-19 era. 

Dr. Judith Cook, professor of psychiatry in the College of Medicine will lead the research center and its team. Cook also is the director of the Center on Mental Health Services Research and Policy, which is dedicated to advancing knowledge and utilization of innovative models to promote health, recovery and employment for people with mental health conditions.  

People with serious mental illness are struggling during COVID-19 and its prevention protocols. 

“People with mental health issues are facing the same issues we are all having, except magnified. Isolation is not great for anyone, but it’s especially difficult for those with serious mental illness. The impact on them is stronger and there is a danger of their health getting far worse,” Cook said. 

People with mental illness already were dealing with high rates of co-occurring conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, heart and kidney disease, and lung diseases such as asthma and COPD. The pandemic makes getting health services, in general, more challenging and the goal is to make sure those with mental health issues do not lose ground as society transitions back from COVID-19, Cook said. 

One of the new center’s key projects is to develop a model of services and supports that can help people with serious mental illness manage their health as well as restart their lives after COVID-19. This model will be appropriate for anyone who needs to rebuild their life post-COVID.

“People with mental illness will be doing things similar to other people — restarting their lives,” Cook said. “Everyone is faced with doing this. Many have lost jobs. Many are living in circumstances they’d like to change. Many are going to need to further education or get vocational training.” 

The National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research awarded the five-year grant. The funds will be used to support several initiatives:  

  • to conduct a nationwide survey on how those with mental illness are coping and what they need to successfully re-engage in society; 
  • to develop new interventions that help them access health care and  manage their co-occurring medical conditions;   
  • to educate medical students to effectively treat serious mental health issues. 

Several of the new center’s projects involve peer mentoring, commonly used in other health fields but relatively new to mental health, Cook said. The Certified Peer Specialist, or CPS, credential can be earned by someone who is successfully managing their own mental illness after receiving state-sponsored training and education. In one new project, a group of 500 newly certified peer specialists will be followed to determine the impact of the pandemic on their health and career paths. In another new project, peer specialists will be trained to act as health navigators to help individuals determine what medical services they need, and help them get those services.   

“Certified peer specialists can help a person move past the stigma of their illness and give them hope that they can put their lives back together,” Cook said. 

The center will adopt a health navigation model that can be delivered by peer specialists through both online and face-to-face meetings, with a focus on helping those with mental illness have successful visits with primary care physicians, specifically telehealth visits. 

The new program also will provide medical students at all three of the University of Illinois’ medical school campuses enhanced training in working with patients who have chronic health conditions co-occurring with serious mental illness. Cook said all emerging doctors need this kind of education since these patients are also dealing with poverty, unemployment, racial and gender discrimination, food insecurity and inadequate housing.  

“We need to do a better job in all medical schools in helping emerging physicians work with the social determinants of health,” Cook said. 

This study is supported by the National Institute of Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (90RTHF0004-01-00).

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