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UMass Medical School improving employment prospects for youth with mental health disabilities

Behavioral health policy experts Marsha Ellison and Maryann Davis representing special needs of an underserved population

By Sandra Gray

UMass Medical School Communications

December 04, 2019
Marsha Ellison, PhD, and Maryann Davis, PhD

UMass Medical School is part of a new nationwide policy initiative to improve employment outcomes for teenagers and young adults with disabilities, including for the first time a focus on those with mental health disabilities. Youth mental health services and policy experts Marsha Langer Ellison, PhD, and Maryann Davis, PhD, bring the expertise of the UMMS Transitions to Adulthood Center for Research to a four-year, $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to establish the National Policy Development Center for Preparing Youth and Young Adults with Disabilities for Employment.

The Council of State Governments is leading the grant in partnership with the Transitions to Adulthood Research Center at UMMS and the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at Cornell University.

“What’s unique about this grant is that it has a specific focus on including youth with mental health conditions in policy discussion, and that’s the expertise we’re bringing,” said Dr. Ellison, associate professor of psychiatry and director for knowledge translation for the Transitions to Adulthood Center for Research, a federally funded program of the Implementation Science & Practice Advances Research Center (iSPARC) at UMMS.

“Our role is to focus on employment problems facing youth with mental health conditions because they are not the same as those of youth with other disabilities, sad to say, they’re worse.”

Among those with other disabilities, youth and young adults with mental illness have the highest drop-out rate from high school, leading to difficulty in getting jobs and staying employed and often ending in poverty. Many are waylaid from ever entering the workforce due to substance abuse and homelessness.

“This population needs a special focus and they’ve been really neglected in employment policy discussions,” said Ellison. “That is why this project is important.”

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act passed in 2014 requires states to provide services for individuals age 14 to 24 with disabilities, including those with psychiatric disabilities or serious mental health conditions, to help them prepare for, obtain and pursue careers that offer competitive salaries and benefits. The Department of Labor is creating the policy center to help states fulfill the mandates of this major federal legislation.

“Employment policy for people with disabilities tends to be scattered over many state agencies,” said Ellison. “The grant will help states coordinate disparate agencies so they’re all rowing in the same direction. Our presence at the table will ensure that youth with mental health conditions are included in that discussion.”

Ellison and the Transitions Center will conduct research on how all 50 states and U.S. territories are delivering the categories of cross-disability pre-employment and transition services that the legislation calls for them to provide. These services include job exploration counseling, work-based learning experiences, individualized student strategies to support a smooth transition from high school to postsecondary education settings and employment, workplace readiness training to develop social and independent living skills and behaviors employers expect employees to possess prior to starting a job, and instruction in self-advocacy to help students effectively communicate.

“We’re going to survey how required services are being delivered specifically for students with mental health disabilities,” Ellison said. “We’ll look at data, policies and regulations, and talk to people who are delivering, administering and directing them to extract and share lessons learned.”

The UMMS team will then develop and disseminate case studies from three to five jurisdictions that the survey identifies as having best practices.

Related story on UMassMedNow:
New grant to help teens with psychiatric disabilities become successfully employed adults