UT researchers improve mental health care for youth

Sarah Seraj

UT researchers are addressing gaps in mental health care for college-age adults by implementing new programs in community health centers across Texas.

The Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health is a research institute in UT’s Steve Hicks School of Social Work that helps agencies implement better practices in mental health. The institute is working on several initiatives that address mental health care gaps in transition-age youth, or people between 16 and 25 years old.

Most signs of serious mental illnesses show up in late adolescence or early adulthood, but the current health care system is not equipped to address the unique needs of young adults, said Deborah Cohen, research associate professor in the School of Social Work.

When the community mental health care system was first developed in the U.S. in the 1960s, it primarily catered to adults in in-patient psychiatric facilities, Cohen said. As a result, mental health care programs became good at serving middle-aged and older adults with chronic mental health conditions. Since then, the system has expanded to include child mental health care programs, but these are typically focused on kids under the age of fifteen. There are no programs that are specifically designed for transition-age youth.

“This age group has the greatest risk for the first stages of a serious mental illness,” Cohen said. “The mental health care system needs to rethink how they approach this age group so that we can be more proactive and intervene early, because that will produce better outcomes.”

It is important to recognize that young adults have different needs and goals than children and older adults, said TIEMH director Molly Lopez. At that age, young adults are beginning to exert independence from their parents and identify their own goals. These goals may be related to their career, education, independent living and relationships.

TIEMH is piloting programs across Texas in collaboration with community health centers such as Heart of Texas and Integral Care. In these programs, mental health services are offered in relation to an individual’s goals to help them be successful at school, work and life.

Vanessa Vorhies Klodnick, senior researcher at the Chicago-based social service organization Thresholds, has helped design some of TIEMH’s transition-age youth programs. She said young adults tend to drop out of programs which only serve to treat the symptoms of their disorders. However, they are interested in programs that help improve their overall life.

“If you have a serious mental health condition onset during childhood or adolescence, it has most likely disrupted your vocational development in a variety of ways.” Klodnick said. “Having really effective evidence-based, evidence-informed services (can) help young people with a lot of deficits in relation to work and school.”

Cohen also said it’s important for college-age students to reach out to their friends if they are acting differently. Many young adults may be living away from their families for the first time, so friends who see them regularly should show them unconditional regard and talk to them if something seems amiss.

Texas is one of the only states in the U.S. to have a separate level of care for transition-age youth, Klodnick said.

“Most states will house services for transition-age youth in the child-side or the adult-side,” Klodnick said. “Texas is doing things like no other state is by creating its own level of care, drawing from best practices from the child sector and the adult sector to adapt to the needs of transition-age youth.”