The University Record, June 5, 1995

MSERP helps those with psychiatric disabilities develop careers

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

For individuals with mental health problems, pursuing higher education may seem like an impossible dream. But thanks to an innovative community-based program in Detroit, many people with psychiatric disabilities now are attending college or receiving vocational training.

"Unfortunately, many bright and motivated young adults experience their first major episode of mental illness during the years when most of their peers are pursuing higher education," says Carol Mowbray, associate professor of social work. "Later, even though their symptoms may stabilize, fear of failure, stigma and discrimination may still interfere with continuing academic education.

"While educational opportunities have expanded for many disenfranchised groups, those with a psychiatric disability are still excluded from many college campuses."

Until now.

The Michigan-Supported Education Research Project (MSERP), a collaborative effort involving the School of Social Work, is a psychosocial rehabilitation program for people with psychiatric disorders who wish to pursue some kind of post-secondary education.

Mowbray, who is the principal investigator of the project, says that existing employment programs designed to help individuals with psychiatric disabilities often provide jobs that do not meet their vocational potential.

"Contrary to popular mythology, many individuals with a severe mental illness have graduated from high school and attended some college," she says.

"To attain positive rehabilitation outcomes, they need to develop a career path, and higher education is a must. Otherwise, these psychiatric consumers are often left with work options only in service industries or assembly jobs that are not full-time, offer few advancement opportunities, pay poorly and produce additional stressors."

Since the first MSERP cohort began in January 1994, nearly 400 students have enrolled in the free, 28-week program. Although students are not granted official college credit for their participation, most attend MSERP sessions twice a week at Wayne County Community College in Detroit.

MSERP staff help prepare participants for college and vocational training by providing information on career planning, vocational self-assessment, stress management, special student services, college enrollment procedures and financial aid and by offering contingency funds for unexpected educational-related expenses. Also, mentors are available to students for tutoring, campus orientation and academic skills development.

An important feature of the project is an educational plan that students devise and are expected to follow once the program is finished.

"We try to make sure that they have a clear understanding of what they're going to do to see this through," says MSERP director Phyllis Levine. "We ask them, 'What are your goals? What are your barriers? What resources are you going to need and where are you going to get them?'"

In addition, participants receive extensive counseling from MSERP staff for several months after completing their weekly sessions.

"The follow-up is really important," Levine says. "We're not like travel agents who sell people a ticket and hotel reservations; we're more like traveling companions. We go along and make sure things are going well. I think it's our responsibility to continue to be available to participants even after the program is finished."

Mowbray says similar programs exist in California and Massachusetts, but MSERP is the only one of its kind with a comprehensive research and evaluation component and with services in classroom, group and individual settings.

"Ours is really unique in the fact that we have more intensive services aimed at a population that's urban-based and heavily minority," she says.

Mowbray adds, however, that participants come from diverse backgrounds and bring with them an array of previous educational experiences, from those working on high school graduation-equivalency requirements to those who already have master's degrees and want to change careers.

Contingent upon continued funding, MSERP plans to add a second site in Dearborn to accommodate individuals living in western Wayne County.

MSERP is funded by the Community Support Program of the Center for Mental Health Services, SAMHSA. In addition to the U-M School of Social Work and Wayne County Community College, other MSERP collaborators include the Detroit/Wayne County Community Mental Health Board, Michigan Department of Mental Health, Eastern Michigan University and Wayne State University.