UMBC’s Jason Schiffman and his YouthFIRST lab advance early identification and treatment of psychosis

UMBC’s Jason Schiffman and his team conduct research on the screening, assessment, and treatment of young people experiencing psychosis. He has recently been awarded two prestigious grants from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and one from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to train clinicians that serve this vulnerable population on how to detect psychosis early, and to offer clinical services to youth in need, dramatically extending the impact of his work nationwide.

Reports by SAMHSA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the U.S. Department of Justice show that one in five adults and one in six youth ages 6-17 experience mental health issues each year. Many of these people experience serious disorders associated with psychosis, which can significantly impact quality of life. Schiffman, psychology professor and director of clinical training, is relentlessly working to change this narrative. 

Schiffman.
Schiffman.

Schiffman and his YouthFIRST lab focus on the early identification of young people suffering from disorders associated with psychosis, such as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, major depressive disorder with psychotic features, and bipolar disorder with psychotic features. Further, he is dedicated to addressing concerns about mental health disparities impacting marginalized communities by studying the validity of screening approaches across diverse populations and communities. Schiffman also incorporates his biological approach to understanding early signs of psychosis by using fMRI to measure brain activity, highlighted in a 2017 UMBC Magazine feature.

For Schiffman, research “translating basic science to real-world applications” and “bringing clarity to the nature and identification of poorly misunderstood mental illnesses” goes hand in hand with his work to reduce stigma and ameliorate suffering “through the lens of prevention science.” 

A multi-layered approach

Schiffman is one of only three national trainers on the Structured Interview for Psychosis-Risk Syndromes (SIPS), the “gold standard interview” for identifying people at risk for psychosis. He has trained research and clinical teams in cities in Maryland, Texas, Illinois, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee on how to use this tool. His trainings have helped psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists more effectively identify and monitor people at risk for psychosis. 

He has been working for years in Maryland to expand the reach of early intervention services. Now, he says, “I am sharing best practices and lessons learned with other mental health professionals across the globe who also provide therapy and services to the people most at risk.”

Schiffman with YouthFirst lab.

Schiffman with YouthFirst lab.His team is one of twenty-two partners on a $1.6 million SAMHSA grant that provides services for people who are at risk of psychosis. Most of the twenty-two Clinical High Risk for Psychosis (CHiRP) teams are state and private providers. Just a few are academic institutions, including UMBC and Yale University. Schiffman’s CHiRP grant will provide much-needed mental health services to scores of young people in Maryland using a needs-based approach.

“The biggest calling for me is that these disorders are potentially devastating to young people who struggle with them, as well as to their families. They can suffer immensely, lose everything, and disconnect from society if they don’t receive the appropriate help,” explains Schiffman. “I am most interested in social and psychological therapies that can be implemented early on in an effort to limit the impact of emerging psychosis.” 

Expanding community reach

Schiffman and his team are also part of a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) multi-state grant with Northwestern University and Temple University. The grant funds mental health screening and identification of people in the general population experiencing symptoms related to psychosis. This $2.25 million project expands the target population from the clinical setting to the community.

In addition, NIMH awarded Schiffman a grant to develop an online training and continuing education platform to teach social workers about reducing the duration of untreated psychosis. The three-hour program has been used to train over 1,200 social workers in Maryland. This training helped to increase the number of referrals to the Maryland Early Intervention Program, a collaboration between Schiffman’s team and his colleagues from the University of Maryland School of Medicine. 

Schiffman with YouthFirst lab.
Schiffman with YouthFirst lab.

A team focused on prevention

This multi-layered process is the work of many people. Schiffman is quick to highlight that he surrounds himself with dedicated and insightful collaborators. He is proud to have a team of undergraduate and graduate students, a postdoctoral research associate, and staff who help to implement each level of the project. 

Dawn Bunch ‘22, psychology, began her position as an undergraduate research assistant in Schiffman’s lab because she was looking to get involved in research impacting mental healthcare. “It’s been an extremely valuable and inspirational learning experience for me,” explains Bunch. “Working in this lab taught me so much about psychological assessment and the research process, which is very important to me since I plan to do both clinical and research work in my career.” 

In addition to gaining knowledge about the psychosis risk field, Bunch and the other YouthFIRST undergraduate research assistants contribute to the lab’s mission by entering data, performing data quality checks, and preparing for study visits.

Combating stigma

Schiffman is also dedicated to supporting a positive campus culture around mental health. He is the faculty advisor for the student chapter of the UMBC National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Each year, with the support of UMBC’s NAMI group, Schiffman holds a panel discussion during Mental Health Awareness Week, where students share their stories of dealing with mental health challenges and successes. 

The YouthFIRST lab also created a mental health awareness video with students sharing their stories. In addition to increasing awareness, two doctoral students found that students in distress who watch this video are more likely to seek support at the UMBC Counseling Center. 

In all this work, Schiffman and his team are driven by a singular focus: intervening early to help young people suffering from psychosis. And the stakes are high. “On average, life expectancy for someone with schizophrenia is twenty years less than someone without schizophrenia,” says Schiffman. “We are changing the paradigm by moving away from institutionalization and incarceration, and towards preventionenabling people with psychosis a chance to live a life of their choosing in the community and the opportunity to reach towards their highest potential.” 

Banner image: Schiffman with YouthFirst lab.
All images by Marlayna Demond ’11.