Listening to patients transforms psychiatric care at GHSU

Psychiatric care and teaching at Georgia Health Sciences University has been transformed by listening to an unusual source: the patients and former patients.

The Department of Psy­chiatry and Health Behavior at GHSU will be honored today with the Award for Crea­tivity in Psychiatric Edu­cation at the American Col­lege of Psychiatrists’ annual meeting in Naples, Fla.

The department is being honored for its Georgia Re­cov­ery-based Educational Ap­proach to Treatment (GREAT) program, which emphasizes the recovery model of care.

Psychiatric care began to be transformed in the U.S. in the 1990s as patients began to demand more respect and the chance to have a greater role in their treatment, said GHSU clinical psychologist Alex Mabe, the team leader of Project GREAT.

“People with the challenges of mental illness said we’re tired of being treated with disrespect, we’re tired of being kind of told what to do,” he said. “We want to be empowered to be a part of our own care and to be active participants in our lives.”

The recovery model emerged, which emphasizes not necessarily the eradication of symptoms but the restoration of function and quality of life. It has since been adopted at the federal level and by organizations including the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Mabe said that as far as he knows, GHSU is the first academic department to wholly adopt the model as the foundation for its care and teaching.

“We need to think differently about how we approach the care,” he said. “We need to be more empowering of the patient to be active participants, collaborators in the care they’re receiving, to look beyond just symptom reduction and look at what matters to them in their lives, what brings them purpose and meaning. And to involve a new health care provider critical to our effort – certified peer specialists.”

A peer specialist is someone who was treated for mental illness but has achieved enough success to become part of the educational and clinical team.

“Each one of our peer specialists has faced some daunting challenges in their own mental health and yet they’ve found a sense of wellness and purpose,” Mabe said. “That has an incredible impact on our trainees as well as our faculty. We’re not trying to just transform our students. We’re trying to transform ourselves as well.”

The mere presence of the peer specialists caused providers to rethink how they related to patients, he said. With the recovery model, patients are asked upfront about not only symptoms but also what they want their treatment to achieve in their lives.

“They might say, ‘I really care about my work. I haven’t been able to work and I really want to get back to work,’” Mabe said. “It’s not just getting them to be less depressed, but returning to work is something they find of importance and meaning in their life.”

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