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Fighting myths, misperceptions about mental illness

2009 Researcher of the Year

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Judith Cook, director of the Center on Mental Health Services Research and Policy
Judith Cook, Researcher of the Year in the clinical sciences. “Medical and mental health go hand in hand,” she says.

Photo: Kathryn Marchetti

Now in its second year, the Researcher of the Year Award highlights the accomplishments of UIC scientists. The $3,500 prize goes to researchers in four categories: basic life sciences, clinical sciences, natural sciences and engineering, and social sciences and the humanities.

Judith Cook conducts her research with one underlying idea: there’s no separation between the mind and the body.

“Medical and mental health go hand in hand,” she says.

“In order to be better clinicians, we need to recognize that and use treatment models that deal with people’s minds as well as their bodies.”

Cook is director of the Center on Mental Health Services Research and Policy, which studies the impact of mental health services on individuals and larger groups.

“In our research, we get a better understanding of what helps people recover from mental illness and use this to inform policy so it’s driven by data and facts rather than misperceptions and myths,” says Cook, professor of psychiatry.

Cook illustrates the connection between the mind and body with her research on HIV and AIDS. Her work has identified a link between the progression of HIV and depression.

“Regardless of the state of the illness and whether people are taking the latest antiretroviral medications, untreated depression has an independent affect on causing the HIV disease progression to go faster,” Cook says.

“People who receive treatment for depression — medicine and psychotherapy — actually have better medical outcomes than people who don’t,” she says.

In her research on illness self-management, Cook established a plan to help people cope with chronic mental disorders. The model, Wellness Recovery Action Planning, includes an eight-week class taught by certified instructors who also have mental health issues.

“It reduces symptoms, enhances hopefulness, improves their quality of life and their ability to advocate for themselves,” she says.

It’s a myth that people with mental illness are incapable of making good decisions about their care, Cook says. Like people with other chronic health problems, such as heart disease or asthma, they need information and social support, she says.

“The model gives them the idea that they are the source of their wellness,” she says. “They are empowered to make choices about treatments, versus just listening to their doctor’s opinion.”

Another project with the National Research and Training Center addresses ways in which people with mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, can lead fuller lives by living independently, marrying or having children, Cook says.

The center takes its research findings into the community, educating providers across the globe, Cook says.

“We’re not after a cure,” Cook says. “What they learn is how to live and thrive despite having these conditions.”

A central focus of Cook’s work is helping people with mental illness find jobs. She’s created employment programs that include training and apprenticeships in the Chicago theater community.

“Many times, what helps people recover from their mental illness is getting started on the road toward being self-sufficient and having a productive role,” she says. “Employment helps people with major mental health problems succeed.”

Cook joined UIC in 1995 after working for a community mental health agency. She received degrees in sociology and psychology from Ohio State University and the University of Delaware.

Over the past five years, she’s been awarded more than $11 million in grants.

She advises beginning researchers to start small when they look for funding.

“You need to be flexible and take a little less money,” she says. “Get experience, and that’s what leads to grants. Money leads to more money.”

For students considering research careers, it’s important to focus your interests but be broad in your knowledge, Cook says.

“The more well rounded researchers can be, the better equipped they are to understand a multidisciplinary problem comprehensively,” she says. “And it really helps to love what you study.”


Other Researcher of the Year Award winners

Joel Brown: game theory, evolution and the ecology of fear

Luke Hanley: Using ingenuity to get grants, improve technology

Timothy Shanahan: pushing for literacy through public policy

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