American Psychological Foundation

Finding a job during a weak economy can be difficult for anyone, but young adults with serious mental illness face even more obstacles.

"These young people often don't complete their high school education," says Kristyn Zajac, PhD, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina's Family Services Research Center. "The majority of these youth are struggling with many problems, and picking a vocation is a major issue, along with having the skills to apply for jobs."

Many of these youth also have had substance abuse problems or have been involved in the criminal justice system, and they may lose needed services when they become adults and no longer qualify for Medicaid, Zajac says. Students with serious mental illness have the lowest graduation rate, lowest grade point average and highest expulsion rate of students with any disabilities, according to past research.

To help psychologists assist their clients in job-seeking, Zajac is using a Pearson Early Career Grant from the American Psychological Foundation to develop a workbook of career resources for use in outpatient mental health treatment for young adults with serious mental illness, including a needs assessment, choosing a career, goal planning and interviewing techniques. The workbook will be geared toward young adults age 18 to 25 with serious mental illness, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. APF provides the $12,000 grant each year to encourage early career psychologists to work in areas of critical need. Part of the grant will cover the costs for Zajac to present her findings at APA's 2014 Annual Convention.

For many young adults with serious mental illness, neuropsychological functioning is affected, resulting in impaired thinking ability and difficulties in functioning well in work settings, such as maintaining a work schedule, says Mary Jansen, PhD, who chairs the APA Div. 18 Section on Serious Mental Illness/Severe Emotional Disturbance. These young people must learn the cognitive skills that assist with learning, memory, attention and concentration, Jansen says.

Zajac will adapt materials for the workbook that she helped develop for another study that was funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. That study combined work by therapists using multi-systemic therapy and career-assistance coaches to address the needs of young adults with serious mental health disorders who were involved in the criminal justice system.

"The goal of this project is to condense the curriculum used by these coaches and make it user-friendly for an outpatient mental health provider to use as part of therapy," Zajac says. Before it is distributed, treatment providers and consumers will review the workbook and suggest any necessary revisions. Zajac then hopes to secure a future grant to conduct a randomized controlled study on the effectiveness of the workbook before it is distributed to therapists across the country.

Brendan L. Smith is a writer in Washington, D.C.