While working on a proposal recently, I did some reading about Supported Education (SEd), a type of program that assists people with psychiatric disabilities in their pursuit of higher education. SEd is a psychiatric rehabilitation intervention that first emerged in the 1980s, along with work at the Boston University (BU) Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation to develop supported employment (SE) programs. While SE demonstrated success in helping people with psychiatric disabilities choose, get, and keep jobs, a 2011 study on the importance of rehabilitation found that many of those jobs were part-time and low-paying, and did not generally lead to real careers that provided enough income for people to become and remain independent. These findings led BU staff to look at the educational needs of people with psychiatric disabilities—in addition to their more immediate employment needs—because of the documented connection between higher educational levels and increased income. According to a literature review, this work resulted in the creation of SEd as a unique, person-centered approach to supporting people with psychiatric disabilities who wanted to embark on or continue interrupted college careers.
My recent encounter with the history and philosophy of SEd led me to reflect on the life of my late colleague Miriam (Mimi) Kravitz. Mimi was homeless during much of her undergraduate career and could certainly have benefited from SEd. Mimi helped found and served as executive director of INCUBE, a groundbreaking peer-run program in New York City that helped people with psychiatric disabilities develop their own businesses. This began in the late 1980s, a time when many mental health programs still acted as if those of us with psychiatric histories were unemployable. INCUBE was a quirky, incredibly innovative program that served as a nurturing, protective environment for emerging entrepreneurs who were overcoming challenges related to inpatient hospitalization, substance use disorders, and homelessness.
But in the years before she became the executive director of INCUBE, Mimi stated through a peer-submitted journal entry that she was “…sick and helpless, and almost alone in New York. As a film and television student at New York University, I ended up sleeping in Union Square… After that, I lost touch with my family and became a child of the system. The experience of Union Square… left me with neurological damage. Hospitalized in the seventies, large doses of Thorazine and anti-psychotics were used. Now, I thank God that people are recognizing that trauma is not psychosis. I was in the system for seven years. I had nine psychiatric hospitalizations… I intermittently lived in welfare hotels and adult foster care.” Mimi goes on to explain that, for much of her early life, the possibility of going to college seemed like a fantasy. “For me, most of my life was spent suffering from isolation and fear. As a small child, I could hear music and voices, which made it difficult for me to learn to read and write”.
Despite these experiences, Mimi eventually worked her way through college and received a degree in business management. Perhaps even more impressive, she later attended and graduated from Brooklyn Law School while she was homeless and living in her Buick in the law school parking lot. I vividly recall an image of Mimi from Peter Stastny’s 1995 film Nerve, in which she described the process of protecting herself, figuring out how to meet her basic needs, and focusing on her studies, knowing that, for her, it would be the way out of poverty, life as a mental patient, and homelessness.
A large, cheerful woman with red curls and a hearty laugh, Mimi demonstrated in the film how she made inventive use of a large cape that she wore throughout her law school career. Sometimes it served as a tent-like shelter, sometimes as a changing room, other times as a hiding place, and sometimes just as protection from the winter chill. When I first saw the film almost 20 years ago, I remember feeling that this was a perfect demonstration of the grit, courage, inventiveness, and imagination that allowed Mimi to persevere through many types of hardships and emerge with a law degree that helped lift her out of homelessness.
So, in celebration of Mimi’s life and legacy, I’d like to call attention to the hope and possibilities that programs like Supported Education can offer people who find themselves in circumstances similar to those that Mimi faced in the 1970s and ’80s. People experiencing homelessness today are capable of the kinds of accomplishments that her life exemplifies, and the homelessness services network can help connect people to innovative services like Supported Education that can help them meet their own goals.
This article was originally published as a Voices from the Field Blog post to highlight the theme of Education. Find the latest SAMHSA Blog posts about behavioral health and homelessness.
Access SAMSHA's Supported Education Evidence-Based Practices KIT – 2012 for more information on Supported Education.
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