How a Young Psychology Professor is Empowering People Through Learning

The Pearson Early Career Grant supports psychology’s efforts to improve areas of critical need in society and encourages talented early career psychologists to devote their careers to solving social problems. Grant applications are currently being accepted for 2018.

When Dr. Aubrey Moe, Ph.D. worked with people with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders for the first time, her perception of these illnesses expanded from merely a textbook definition to seeing disorders that people live with every day.

“It’s easy to get caught up in only thinking about certain kinds of psychiatric symptoms at the expense of seeing the human side and what makes each individual who they are,” the 2016 Pearson Early Career Grant recipient says.

“I had read about psychosis in my classes and during my early training, but it was a completely different experience to interact with and learn from the individuals who live with these disorders.”

Working closely with these individuals, she says, fueled her determination to help people who experience psychosis navigate their symptoms and live meaningful lives. Even when people experience a reduction or remission of psychiatric symptoms, they often continue to face struggles in their day-to-day lives.

“Even with consistent treatment, many aspects of functioning impacted by psychotic disorders remain impaired—and for some people, symptoms never completely subside,” Dr. Moe explains.

Dr. Moe is the 2016 Pearson Early Career Grant recipient and works at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. With assistance from Pearson’s grant, she is working to make specialized treatments more accessible to individuals who experience psychosis sooner—even as early as when they are receiving inpatient psychiatric care.

Early intervention is key, she says, to having the most impact on patient lives.

“My goal is to equip young adults with psychosis with the social skills they need to successfully navigate interpersonal and professional relationships. We know that specialized psychosocial care is effective when delivered as early as possible, but to date most of these interventions are only available to people in outpatient settings. This project is allowing us to change that,” she says.

“My goal is to equip young adults with psychosis with the social skills they need to successfully navigate interpersonal and professional relationships.”

A Different Experience of Reality

Living with symptoms of psychosis, Dr. Moe explains, can sometimes feel like living in an alternate reality.

“Hallucinations, delusions, paranoid thinking: these are a few of the confusing and possibly scary experiences of a person suffering from psychosis. These symptoms can cause a significant change in a person’s experience of reality,” Dr. Moe says.

But not all symptoms of psychosis are so visceral. Some of the most common early signs and behavioral symptoms of psychosis include indifference for previous hobbies or activities, disinterest in communicating with parents and friends, and declining academic performance.

Many of these signs, Dr. Moe explains, mirror what can be “normal teenage behavior” and thus can make them difficult for family and others to identify.

“These changes can affect social behavior and overall functioning,” Dr. Moe explains. “If families are concerned that changes may be symptomatic of mental illness, I would recommend they follow up with a mental health professional.”

Maintaining an open dialogue about mental health and wellness can also help families to communicate effectively.

One of the best things families can do to support a loved one living with psychosis symptoms, Dr. Moe adds, is to get information and to support themselves by seeking support from other parents and families who share that caregiving experience.  

Putting People in the Driver’s Seat

“There are three requests I hear most frequently from young people with psychosis: ‘I want to go back to school,’ ‘I want to go back to work,’ and ‘I want to make more friends,’” Dr. Moe says.

“Although many people do want to use treatment to learn how to manage symptoms of psychosis, we would be remiss not to acknowledge that many of their desired outcomes are goals that extend far beyond hallucinations or delusions.”

Equipping young people with skills and strategies to accomplish these goals helps them move forward in their lives whether or not they continue to experience psychiatric symptoms.

It often takes more than medication to help patients accomplish those goals. Typical treatment for psychotic symptoms includes a combination of medicine, therapy, and other evidence-based care.

“One of the most important aspects of psychosocial care for psychosis is to help people feel empowered in their lives. I want to put them in the driver’s seat of their care, and ultimately of their lives.”

Dr. Moe’s treatment approach in her grant-funded project centers around a group therapy experience that helps participants focus on the foundational aspects of making and maintaining relationships. Patients learn important social skills like how to have successful conversations, how to respond to bullying, and how to nurture friendships.

“That may sound simple,” Dr. Moe explains, “but these are skills that, for many people affected by psychosis, no longer feel natural or were possibly never learned. We want to help people to maximize their chances of success in social interactions.”

“My goal is to equip young adults with psychosis with the social skills they need to successfully navigate interpersonal and professional relationships.”

“My goal is to equip young adults with psychosis with the social skills they need to successfully navigate interpersonal and professional relationships.”

The future, Dr. Moe believes, is bright. “I’ve had participants from my groups approach me and say, ‘Hey, I tried that technique to start a conversation with someone, and it really worked!’ I’ve also seen them put those skills to use in starting and maintaining conversations with me.”

Fighting the Stigma

“Unfortunately, pop culture and the media continue to feed the stigma of psychosis and mental illness,” Dr. Moe says. “We really need to work on changing that tone.”

People with mental illness—and particularly psychosis, Dr. Moe explains, are disproportionately represented as violent and criminal—when the reality is that they are more likely to be the victim of a crime than they are to commit one.

“Psychotic disorders are serious illnesses with serious symptoms, but it’s important to remember that people with psychosis are people,” Dr. Moe stresses.

“People can and do recover. What matters the most is providing them with the resources and tools they need to live personally meaningful lives.”