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Report: Supported education improves career prospects for young people dealing with mental illness

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC – Young people with mental illness can benefit greatly from a promising intervention called Supported Education that has the potential to improve future wage earnings and employment prospects, according to a report by RTI International and the University of Massachusetts Medical School. 

Supported Education interventions aim to improve an individual's chances of long-term employment success by focusing on skill, career, and educational opportunities within postsecondary educational environments.

"Many times young adults' first onset of mental illness occurs developmentally just as they're in the midst of post-secondary education," said Heather Ringeisen, Ph.D., director, Center for Behavioral Health and Development at RTI and lead author of the report. "Most have to drop out of trade/vocational or other higher education experiences as a result of impairment associated with their illness. Most never return. This promising intervention approach assists these individuals so they can continue their education. This is important because we know there are very strong links between educational achievement and meaningful career-oriented employment and then between stable employment and reduced risk for negative outcomes including drug abuse, poverty, and violence." 

Well-known evidence-based interventions, such as Supported Employment, where individuals with disabilities are assisted with attaining and maintaining employment, have the ability to help young people with mental illness get jobs; however, all too often these jobs are part-time or have low wages which then lead to low job retention rates. Supported Education interventions aim to help individuals with mental illness to:  set and achieve educational goals, to improve educational competencies such as learning to study, to navigate the educational environment (like submitting applications for financial aid) and to improve educational attainment.  Supported Education includes an education support specialist whose job it is to focus on program participants' educational attainment, course enrollment and trouble-shooting problems that might lead to post-secondary education drop-out. 

The report, funded by Department of Health and Human Services' Office for the Assistant Secretary of Planning and Evaluation, draws conclusions from a literature review, environmental scan of researchers, program administrators and practitioners as well as program site visits in Oregon, Minnesota and New Jersey. The report details policy, research and practice actions to be taken to strengthen the evidence around supported education and its effective community implementation.

Supported Education programs exist in several states across the country and published research on its approaches has grown dramatically in the last decade. According to researchers, many existing studies unfortunately do not follow program participants for a sufficient number of years to document critical longer term outcomes such as graduation, degree or certificate attainment. 

"There is so much media attention around mental illness and violence; however, those are actually very rare events," Ringeisen said. "Much more common is the daily struggle of individuals with mental illness. National attention and resources should be closely focused on developing more promising interventions to off-set the debilitating impact of mental illness. Supported Education has tremendous promise and this report demonstrates that it is worth rigorous investigation."