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Updated 5:00 PM March 16, 2007




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Collaboration helps students with mental, physical illness

The Division of Student Affairs and the U-M Health System (UMHS) are teaming up to help students who suffer from serious mental and physical illnesses to continue or resume their studies.

The innovative program, called MThrives, is a partnership between the Office of the Dean of Students and MWorks, the occupational health program of UMHS.

After completing a successful pilot September 2005-August 2006, the program was established and funded for FY 2007 and is expected to continue as a permanent service, says Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, associate dean of students, who directs the program and works closely with Tracy Wright-Riley, registered nurse and certified case manager and nurse consultant for MWorks.

Pinder-Amaker says advances in physical and psychiatric medicine have enabled students—those who previously might have been too disabled to do so or might even have died—to pursue academic careers. "The Dean of Student's office has seen the demand for these services on our campus increase exponentially in the past five years," she says.

MThrives is modeled after the MWorks program that assists employees with complex medical issues to function successfully in the workplace. Pinder-Amaker says she learned about MWorks at a conference two years ago.

"Tracy and I were talking during a break and decided to see if we could use the MWorks model to provide a similar service to students that would allow them to stay in school while dealing with either a serious mental health condition or a catastrophic illness, such as cancer or stroke. It has turned out to be a very successful program," Pinder-Amaker says. During the pilot year the program handled 12 cases and that number has more than tripled so far this year, she says.

Wright-Riley says providing similar services to students presented some different challenges.

"Many students are either underinsured or have no insurance, so in addition to dealing with the academic issues that arise—maintaining degree progress, keeping scholarships—we often need to seek community-provided services to deal with treatment costs, including housing, food, medications," Wright-Riley says.

She describes those who provide MThrives services as system navigators, who assist students in negotiating the sometimes-complex processes required to attain the treatment they need.

For students with serious mental health challenges, MThrives works in conjunction with the University Emergency Health Withdrawal and Readmission policy. "Ours is a liberal policy that is designed to increase the probability that a student will be able continue their studies after a period of treatment. We work closely with the schools and colleges to promote a culture that empowers the students, reduces stigma, provides developmentally appropriate support and communicates caring," Pinder-Amaker says.

One of the resources developed by the Dean of Students office is a Mental Health Resources Student Guide to Mental Health Hospitalization that was written in partnership with a former student patient. "The book is a valuable resource," Pinder-Amaker says. "The hospital units, including Inpatient Psychiatry, have agreed to hand out the book, when appropriate, with an explanation of its contents. We are finding that many students are now less reluctant to give the units permission to contact our office to get additional support," she says.

Wright-Riley gave two examples of students who have been helped by MThrives. In one case, a graduate student in a difficult living situation, who was struggling with a large medical debt, was hospitalized after making an attempt on his own life. "We were able to arrange for outpatient treatment and work with his creditors to arrange a payment plan by which he could pay off the debt. We talked with faculty to let them know the student was hospitalized with a serious health problem and were able to get him an extension on his course work. The result is that he was able to resume his studies while continuing treatment and his debt was resolved before he received his degree," Wright-Riley says.

Another case involved an uninsured undergraduate student from Michigan who had developed cancer. Wright-Riley says MThrives was able to negotiate with the state to have the student's surgery covered under Medicaid. "We also tapped community resources to provide medical equipment at no cost, food service when needed and medications at a reduced cost during her recovery. She was ultimately able to continue her studies."

Pinder-Amaker is scheduled to make a presentation on MThrives at the 2007 Depression on College Campuses conference being held at the Rackham Graduate School building Mar. 19-20. The presentation will be part of a panel discussion: "Helping Severely Distressed Students" at 2:30 p.m. on Mar. 19.

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