For new college students, adjusting to academic demands and new social
situations can be difficult. For those with serious mental illness, however,
these aspects of undergraduate life can seem like insurmountable
They're not. That is the philosophy behind Education Plus, a
supported-education program designed to help people with serious mental
illness earn associate's, bachelor's, and master's degrees by providing them
with psychosocial and academic support.
Education Plus is a program of Horizon House, a Philadelphia mental health
agency that operates a variety of psychiatric rehabilitation programs,
including a supported-employment program (see story above and in June 3
"Education Plus is helping people to bypass entry-level jobs so that
they can embark on successful careers," the program's director, Arlene
Solomon, M.S., told Psychiatric News.
Education Plus was established in 2002 with funding from the Pew Charitable
Trust and the Philadelphia Office of Mental Health. Services are free to
people with mental illness who live in Philadelphia. Students come to
Education Plus through referrals from one of the Horizon House rehabilitation
programs, local psychiatrists and mental health professionals, college
disability offices, and other sources. The majority of students in the program
have schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, or major
depression, Solomon noted.
Students are assigned to one of two educational specialists who meet with
them once every week or two during the semester, usually on the student's
campus. Together they discuss the student's educational goals and begin to
tackle issues that may hamper his or her ability to meet those goals.
GinaMarie Centanni, an educational specialist and Education Plus
coordinator, helps students manage their time effectively, communicate with
their instructors, and cope with anxiety around exam time, she said.
"Procrastination is a big problem with our students," she
Whether in high school, college, or graduate school, most people can recall
waiting until the last minute to begin an assignment and pull an"
all-nighter" to hand it in on time, but these tactics can
exacerbate psychiatric symptoms, Centanni noted.
"Our students can make themselves sick by placing extra pressure on
themselves, and when they don't get the assignment done, some students slip
into depression and stop going to class."
Part of Centanni's job involves helping students to cope with psychiatric
and other medical problems, medication side effects, and problems that arise
with housing or family members.
Students are faced with formidable challenges. "We had one woman who
was living in a homeless shelter with her two children while attending
classes," Solomon recalled.
Mornings are the worst time of day for some Education Plus students,
Centanni noted, because that is when they most often hear voices or feel
fatigued from their medications. In these cases, Centanni advises them to
register for afternoon and evening classes.
The majority of Education Plus students need special accommodations to
succeed in their courses.
This may, for example, mean having a classmate take notes for them during a
brief psychiatric hospitalization, providing them with extra time to finish an
exam, or allowing them to take a test in a room by themselves to concentrate
better. Some must bring fluids in class to alleviate dry mouth.
Centanni said she regularly refers students to the campus disability
office, which offers services such as career or course-selection advice. It is
through the disability office that many accommodations can be made for
Education Plus students, she added.
"I've seen students' self-esteem improve a great deal" since
starting with Education Plus, Centanni said.
Students in the program have met requirements for honor roll and the dean's
list, she noted. After graduating, some have become emergency medical
technicians, insurance agents, and personal trainers, for instance.
Some students may have trouble forming friendships on campus or feel as
though they can't fit in with their classmates, Centanni said.
They and others are encouraged to attend a peer support group for Education
Plus students held each week during the school year. "It's not a therapy
group," Centanni emphasized, but "a place where students can meet
others who face similar difficulties.... It's also a friendship
The majority of Education Plus students are in their late 20s, but the age
range is wide.
Since the program began 2002, more than 60 students have received
supported-education services, and about 30 are currently participating.
Most are seeking associate degrees from the Community College of
Philadelphia. Other students have enrolled at Temple University, Drexel
University, DeVry University, LaSalle University, and career institutes in the
Solomon described supported education as a "burgeoning" field
and said she knew of only about 30 across the country. "It was once
thought that people with mental illness were incapable of holding down a
job," a notion that proved incorrect with the advent of
supported-employment programs. "Supported education is the next
step," she said.
Mark Selzer, Ph.D., who helped develop Education Plus with Solomon, said he
believes that supported-education programs are essential to professional
advancement for those with serious mental illness.
Selzer is director of the UPenn Collaborative on Community Integration,
which promotes community integration for people with mental illness, and an
assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of
"Instead of viewing mental illness as the primary source" of
problems with job attainment and/or career advancement, he said, "we
need to look at other things that may hamper professional success."
Selzer noted that research has demonstrated that people with serious mental
illness have lower educational levels than the general population, and"
we know that education is probably the number-one factor in obtaining
employment for anyone."
"A good number of people with serious mental illness do have the
ability to return to college and reach their educational goals with the right
supports," he said.
Information about Horizon House and its programs is posted online at<www.hhinc.org>.▪