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TSSW student earns $10,000 research grant

Roughly one million people in the United States are on disability for mental health reasons, and Tulane Master of Social Work part-time student Alex Fixler is working to help reduce that number.

This month, Fixler was awarded a yearlong $10,000 grant from the Policy Research, Inc., which is funded by the Social Security Administration’s Disability Determination Small Grant program. The grant will allow her to explore early interventions to help people with affective disorders like major depression stay in the workforce, have more productive and satisfying lives and not become permanently disabled.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” Fixler said. “I think it is going to be an exciting project. I’m very interested in the outcome, and I’m hopeful that it will inform my work in the future. It will also be an opportunity to learn to do research more intensively, which is exciting.”

Fixler’s project is one of eight selected from across the country with other awards going to Ph.D. candidates at UC Berkeley, University of Iowa, Northeastern, Brandeis, Vanderbilt, and NC State. She’s the only social work Masters level student to earn the grant.

“Major depressive disorder is the most prevalent global disability, according to the World Health Organization, and accounts for nearly half of lost workplace productivity in America,” Fixler said. “An early intervention program could help people stay engaged in meaningful work experiences and get the help they need to prevent a life of disability and disconnection. I think such a program could ultimately extend the reach of services to almost anyone who experiences depression in America, not only those who are on the path to being disabled by it.”

Fixler said the focus topic for the grant came from her work in case management for the past four years, most recently with permanent supportive housing, and in consultation with her advisor on the project, Deborah Oliveira, LCSW, assistant director of field education.

“Working in the field a little while, it feels like a lot of things that happen to people are preventable, but there aren’t any structures in place to help. It just seems like early intervention is not prioritized,” she said.

Fixler currently is completing her MSW field placement at the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights in their policy department, where she provided secondary research on a policy report, which was ultimately part of a successful LCCR-directed push to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction in Louisiana from 16 to 17 years of age. That experience ignited her desire to tackle more research opportunities.

As part of the grant, Fixler will interview people who already receive Social Security benefits for depression in an effort to learn what type of resources would have been helpful in maintaining them in the work force.

“I’m going to compile all of that data and try to identify ideas for resources that don’t already exist now or that don’t kick in until later,” she said. “There are programs to get people back into the workforce, but studies show that those are less effective. Once people are out of the workforce for a year, they tend to have a really hard time getting back into it.”

Fixler said the ultimate goal of her research would be to find ways to use resources sooner and more effectively to help people with mental health issues stay in the workforce and have a higher quality of life.

Published August 5, 2016. Written by Joseph Halm, Tulane PR.