September 20, 2017

Adults with serious and persistent mental illness—which can include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder—are disproportionately vulnerable to physical illness and premature death. Research has shown that integrating medical, behavioral health, and social services has the potential to greatly improve outcomes.

A groundbreaking partnership between the School of Social Work, UW Psychiatry, and the King County Behavioral Health and Recovery Division will work alongside consumers and provider organizations to create, implement, and test this innovative integrative model, which is widely seen as the future of health care.

Launching this fall with a substantial investment from Many Minds Collaborative, the Partnership for Innovation in Mental Health (PIMH) will draw on a rich body of evidence about how health outcomes can be affected by integrated systems that are accountable for the full continuum of care. PIMH is also committed to authentic consumer leadership at all stages of the project.

“UW is a leader in both the collaborative care model and evidence-based social services,” says Dean Eddie Uehara. “The great significance of this partnership is that it synthesizes social services and attention to social determinants into the well-tested model of collaborative medical and behavioral health care.”

The first phase of PIMH will focus on reducing cardiovascular disease, which accounts for 60 percent of premature death among adults with serious and persistent mental illness. This group has more than twice the rate of obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes as the population at large.

Risks for cardiovascular disease include chronic stress, homelessness, food insecurity, and deep poverty. “We’ve known this for a long time,” says School of Social Work professor Maureen Marcenko, who serves on PIMH’s three-person planning committee. “The challenge is to help consumers and providers of services systematically introduce innovations with demonstrated outcomes.”

As in all phases of the partnership, the focus will be on developing, testing, and rapidly implementing effective interventions. Social work faculty who will be closely involved in the launch of PIMH include newly hired assistant professor Ryan Petros, whose research focuses on recovery for adults with serious mental illness, self-management strategies, community integration, and homelessness.

Workforce development at Harborview Medical Center and in the community behavioral health clinics is also a key element of the partnership. “We’re educating the next generation of providers to work in these contexts,” says Marcenko. “Social workers provide most of the mental health services in the community, and we have a critical role to play in shaping services and providing them to people who have serious and persistent mental illness.”

The School’s leadership in the area of evidence-based mental health services has been widely recognized, most recently in the awarding of an inaugural UW Population Health Initiative pilot research grant to a multidisciplinary group that includes social work professor Amelia Gavin. Gavin will work with colleagues from the departments of psychiatry, psychology, and computer science to expand access to mental health services in underserved communities by creating a technology-based tool for training lay counselors. The goal is to efficiently expand the evidence-based behavioral health intervention skills of volunteers and frontline staff in clinical settings and community service agencies. The prototype will be tested with UW social work and psychology undergraduates. The project was one of five chosen from a pool of 60 applications from multidisciplinary faculty teams representing all three UW campuses as well as every school and college on the Seattle campus.

Like PIMH, the project exemplifies the type of deep collaboration advanced by the UW’s Center for Health Sciences Interprofessional Education, Research and Practice (CHSIE), which works to integrate teaching, learning, and collaborative research across UW’s six health sciences schools: dentistry, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, public health, and social work. School of Social Work professor Susan Kemp co-led a six-school collaborative planning process that shaped the center’s current vision and strategic plan. (Read Kemp's Vision for a Collaborative Future.

The interprofessional education model stresses cross-disciplinary collaboration, team-based learning, and understanding patient needs within a complex health environment. The goal is nothing short of transforming the curricula, facilities, and approaches to training across the six health sciences schools. Read a profile of IPE instructor Charlotte Sanders, field lead with the School’s Northwest Leaders in Behavioral Health Program.

While PIMH’s coverage area is King County, the project is intended as a testing ground for ideas and approaches that could have broader impact. “The idea is to create an integrative model that can inform other health organizations interested in transforming care for people with mental health and substance abuse problems,” Marcenko says.