Detroit Mercy professor studying primary care for people with serious mental illness

March 16, 2018

Associate Professor of Psychology Kristen Abraham instructs two of her students in the lab.DETROIT — Associate Professor of Psychology Kristen Abraham will never forget the days leading up to her winning Detroit Mercy’s 2017 Faculty Achievement Award. She was honored to receive the award after two life milestones.

“It was a very exciting two weeks for me,” Abraham said. “On a Monday, I had my first child. That following Friday, I learned I was tenured and promoted. One week later, I received the call notifying me that I won the Faculty Achievement Award. So those two weeks were the most exciting two weeks in my life. I was really honored and excited to receive the award. It’s nice to be recognized.”

Abraham earned the Faculty Achievement Award through her teaching, scholarship and service.

A key component of Abraham’s work is a three-year project awarded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. Abraham is the primary investigator on the grant titled “Social Determinants of Primary Care Utilization among Urban Community Mental Health Center Patients with Serious Mental Illness.”

“It’s a project that’s primarily interested in understanding what predicts whether people with serious mental illnesses, like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, get primary care,” Abraham said. “This is a critical topic because, on average, people with serious mental illnesses die 13-30 years sooner than the general population and the main causes of death are physical health conditions, particularly heart disease.

“A lot of times mental health professionals are primarily focused on the mental health of people with serious mental illnesses, which makes sense, but sometimes that focus overshadows the physical health issues facing this population. Our study focuses on getting care for physical health issues,” Abraham added.

Abraham and her team of graduate students are recruiting participants for the study from community mental health centers. They have partnered with Detroit Central City and New Center Community Mental Health Services.

The graduate students interview consumers of mental health services three times over six months.

“The graduate students have played a critical role in recruiting and keeping track of the participants,” Abraham said. “That takes a lot of work. The people who participate in our study often face a lot of challenges. Some are homeless and many don’t have their own independent transportation. This is a population that is underserved. It can be challenging to keep anyone in a research study for six months and even more challenging for people with serious mental illness. Not because they don’t want to do it, but because they face a lot of other difficulties.

“The graduate students are really essential in making sure participants stay involved. They are warm and inviting and really make our participants feel welcome so that they want to come back for study visits. The study would not be possible and would not be a success if it weren’t for the graduate students.”

Collaborators on the study include Detroit Mercy Professor of Psychology Cheryl Munday and Professor of Nursing Carla Groh, as well as Wayne State University Professor of Sociology, Heather Dillaway.

Undergraduate students also work on Abraham’s project. Most undergraduate students who work on the project are first trained through the health disparities track of the ReBUILDetroit program, which Abraham also leads.

“The most exciting piece of this grant is that we won it because we involve undergraduates in the research process,” Abraham said. “Undergraduate students have an opportunity to work as assistants to the graduate students. This is the kind of thing that’s an unparalleled opportunity for undergraduate students. Undergrads don’t typically get to collect data from participants with serious mental illness. That’s just not something that’s part of the average undergraduate experience, but we get to provide that experience and training through this project.”

For most of the undergraduate students, it’s their first chance to do research. The students are able to gain a sense of what goes into a study and feel out if it’s the career path they want to follow.

“This opportunity provides them with real knowledge of what it’s like, as opposed to just reading in a book,” Abraham said. “In older models of teaching, students really didn’t come into research labs until they were juniors or seniors. By that time, it’s so late to figure out if you want to go to graduate school. The ReBUILD program gives students that exposure early on and our study allows them to continue to engage in research first-hand. I think that’s incredibly important. They are able to make a truly informed decision about if this is for them or not.”

Abraham’s project is also working to see what prevents people with serious mental illness from receiving primary care, and if they do receive it, what do they enjoy about it.

“We will be doing focus groups with participants to ask people what gets in the way of them getting primary care and what helps them get primary care, and what they like about it,” Abraham said. “We know little about what people with serious mental illness prefer and do not like about their primary care. We are trying to add to the knowledge base more broadly about what we can do to improve the health of people with serious mental illnesses through access to primary care.”

Abraham came to Detroit Mercy because it would afford her the opportunity to get to know her undergraduate students and also work with Ph.D. students.

“I get to do the research piece, I get to do the teaching and mentor piece, I get to do the faculty collaboration piece, all in one spot,” Abraham said.

“I’ve made a real effort since I’ve been here to continue my research in terms of working to impact the lives of people with serious mental illness. That’s the population that I’m the most concerned with. What I’ve done since I arrived here is try to bring students into that fold to train them to do the same thing. All Ph.D. students aren’t necessarily going to go on to be researchers; most of them will go on to become clinicians. But helping them get exposure to this population and appreciate the research that’s needed to help this population live longer, and live a longer, healthier life, is, I think, me doing my job.”

— By Dave Pemberton. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.

Detroit Mercy Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Pamela Zarkowski, Professor of Biology Mary Tracy-Bee, Associate Professor of Psychology Kristen Abraham and Detroit Mercy President Antoine M. Garibaldi pose for a photo.