Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Temple University professor works to eliminate societal barriers for people with mental illness

From Temple University News:

Jeffrey Bohen has been in college since the early 90s. He received his associate’s degree in mental health and human services, and has been trying to get his bachelor’s degree in journalism for several years. But bouts with mental illness have impeded his progress at every turn.

Now in recovery from his illness, Bohen is on track to graduate from Temple’s Journalism in January. He says that the faculty and advisors in the department have been tremendously supportive and welcoming, an important part of his recovery.

“I have a great support system in place, and the professors and my advisor make me feel very grounded,” he said. “I used to question whether or not I could handle the stress, but now there are no doubts. All bets are off.”

Unfortunately, many people recovering from mental illnesses are not as lucky, according to Mark Salzer (pictured), director of the Collaborative on Community Integration.

“People with mental illnesses generally do want to be contributing members to society, but there are many external barriers that prevent them from doing so,” said Salzer, who is chair of the newly formed department of Rehabilitation Sciences at the College of Health Professions and Social Work, which includes programs in Occupational Therapy and Recreational Therapy that were formerly separate departments.

Housed within the new department, the collaborative works on identifying and eliminating these barriers, and works with community organizations and policy makers to develop strategies and interventions that can bring about meaningful changes in the lives of people who live with a mental illness.

“There are laws that make it difficult for people with mental illnesses to do certain things that should be a right for all people, such as voting, working and getting an education,” said Salzer. “There’s also a stigma that surrounds a person with a mental illness, which often makes them feel like they can’t do these things.”

Bohen has experienced that alienation first hand during his academic career. Still, he recognizes that people don’t often know how to interact with people with a mental illness.

“We don’t all live on disability, or get locked away in some hospital,” said Bohen. “We want to live our lives, and work, and have our own places, just like everyone else.”

The study of community integration is relatively new to the field of mental health. For years, Salzer said, doctors focused solely on drug therapies to help people with mental illnesses; no thought was given to their quality of life. But now, researchers are looking at opportunities for people with a psychiatric disability to live in the community and be valued for their uniqueness and abilities.

“People with mental illnesses die on average 25 years earlier than the general population,” said Salzer. “And much of this has to do with the feelings of depression, isolation, and discrimination that limit their ability to live in the community. Many of those feelings stem from the fact that there are so many barriers in place that prevent that level of participation.”

Through the collaborative, Salzer and his team have worked with community mental health organizations, advocacy groups and policy makers to design supports in the areas of employment, housing, education, citizenship, social roles, peer support, self-determination, discrimination and spirituality and religion.

“Research has shown that people with a psychiatric disability who work, who date, who go to school, tend to have better mental health outcomes than those who do not,” said Salzer. “They should enjoy the same rights and privileges as those without a disability, and we’re working to ensure those rights become a reality.”