The Community Mental Health Center of Lancaster County has been selected to participate in the early treatment study, as a result of efforts coordinated by Will Spaulding, director of the UNL Psychology Department’s Serious Mental Illness Research Group.
Lincoln is one of 35 sites nationwide participating in the study. The nationwide effort will gauge the impact of using coordinated and aggressive treatment of schizophrenia during the earliest stages of the illness to reduce the likelihood of long-term disability that people with schizophrenia often experience, help those people lead productive, independent lives and lessen the burden on public systems often tapped to pay for their care.
“The project coordinators were very attracted to the Lincoln site for a number of reasons — the small city dimension, the combined rural/urban dimension and the fact that we are here — the UNL SMI Research Group — to provide support and assistance,” Spaulding said.
The UNL group, established in the 1980s and made up of professionals and graduate students, has done extensive research on schizophrenia. Spaulding also is widely regarded as a pioneer in the areas of treatment and rehabilitation of those affected by the disorder and other severe mental illnesses.
The county agency, meanwhile, has been providing services to people with severe mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, for more than 35 years, said Travis Parker, the agency’s deputy director.
“All of us at the Community Mental Health Center of Lancaster County are very excited about this project, which is the latest in a long-standing partnership with the UNL Psychology Department,” he said. “Leveraging our combined expertise will only boost our ability to improve the quality of life for those we serve.”
The onset of schizophrenia, a disorder characterized by hallucinations and delusions, is typically during adolescence, Spaulding said. But it’s the loss of cognitive functioning that results in the inability to carry out even the most routine of tasks: following a daily schedule, paying bills or getting to work, for example, he added.
“It takes away an entire lifetime of economic productivity,” Spaulding said. “It’s an extremely expensive illness.”
Troubling, too, is that most people with schizophrenia show symptoms, on average, more than a year before seeking professional help, he said.
Mary Sullivan, a UNL research specialist and member of the Serious Mental Illness Research Group, will lead the local study. Her team is recruiting Lancaster County residents between the ages of 19 and 40 who are experiencing the early signs of the disorder, including confusion between the real and imaginary, paranoia and having problems with work, school or social relationships.
Participants in the study will receive mental health services that could include medication and psychosocial therapy.
“This study has immense potential not only to change the course of how we provide services for people with schizophrenia, but to help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness,” Sullivan said. Prospective participants and others with questions about the study can call (402) 441-3853.
The early treatment program is part of the National Institute of Mental Health’s Recovery After an Initial Schizophrenia Episode, or RAISE, Early Treatment Project, administered by the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research and the Research Foundation for Mental Hygiene. Federal funding for RAISE is from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and NIMH. More information is available at www.nimh.nih.gov/RAISE.
WRITER: Jean Ortiz Jones, University Communications, (402) 472-8320