Researchers all across the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus are working toward advancing knowledge and creating solutions to critical health disparities on both local and global scales. These researchers evaluate health disparities from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives and work to find ways to address the discrepancies within medicine, child development, law, food access, education, and health communication. Each Researcher Spotlight features a health disparities researcher doing important work right here at Illinois.
Christopher R. Larrison, MSW, PhD
School of Social Work
Christopher R. Larrison, MSW, PhD is an associate professor in the School of Social Work. His research and teaching focus on the social determinants of and services for people with serious mental illness and co-morbid health conditions from a public health perspective. His agenda has been shaped by a transdisciplinary approach to research and collecting primary data in rural community-based settings from people receiving and providing services. He has studied community-based mental health services in the U.S., community development in rural Mexico, and the impact of welfare reform on health in Georgia. His use of field research techniques has led to extensive experience in training and supervising research staff, collecting and analyzing primary data, and using mixed methods. Several of Prof. Larrison’s peer-reviewed articles have been placed on suggested reading lists by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Government Accounting Office, and The World Bank.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
Given the eclectic nature of my research, there is a mix of personal and professional experiences that led me to various aspects of my research agenda. My interest in mental health services is derived from my life as a practicing social worker, which revolved around providing services for children experiencing serious mental health disorders and their families as well as adults seeking therapy for mental illness. Primarily, I worked at community mental health centers, which provided an interesting cross over with concepts from community development. As I entered graduate school, I decided that community development and poverty were the areas I would like to study. My mentor at the time Dr. Larry Nackrud (Professor at University of Georgia) encouraged, supported, and provided opportunities for me to pursue these interests. The two big projects I was involved in at the time, my dissertation, which included primary data collection from over 700 individuals in 22 rural villages outside of Xalapa, Veracruz (Mexico), and studying the impacts of welfare reform, had significant findings that connected health and poverty. As I moved to become a professor, I decided to try to combine all three of my interests (community development, mental health, and poverty). My objective is to understand how the individuals receiving services, the people providing services, and the community the services occur in interact to create outcomes.
How does being part of the University of Illinois and/or the Champaign-Urbana community impact your research?
The University has supported my research agenda in a number of positive ways, through small grant funding that has jump-started larger projects and research infrastructures via the IHSI and CSBS that focused on both bringing together diverse teams and highlighting the research of those teams. Most importantly, UIUC has provided access to world-class scholars in multiple fields who are open to discussing and exploring difficult ideas and solutions. Two examples over the years have stuck with me. First, was the time Dr. Gene Robinson (Director of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology- IGB) ran a group interested in linking the social sciences, humanities, and genetics. The people Dr. Robinson had talking together were incredible – I always felt lucky to be in the room. The discussions and learning opportunities Dr. Robinson created at IGB are mirrored today in the work done by Dr. Brent Roberts, Director of CSBS, and Dr. Neal Cohen, Director of IHSI. The second is a little more unusual partnership that started with Lisa Power, a university attorney who was generous enough to find solutions to bringing HIPAA data on campus. The process brought together a wide array of individuals from all different parts of the university (Office of Vice Chancellor for Research & Innovation, Technology Services, academics from Beckman Institute and Computer Science). It was amazing to work with such a diverse group of professionals on a singular problem affecting the research possibilities for numerous scholars on campus.
Another impact that working on this campus has had on my research, is expanding the methods I use. The resources and expertise available at UIUC have allowed me to explore social media as a naturalistic source of data to study mental illness and mental health services. I am working with a team, including Mr. Gaurav Sinha (PhD student at the School of Social Work) and Dr. Ian Brooks (Director of the Center for Health Informatics), to finalize a paper examining Twitter sentiments and the availability of mental health services among people who have direct experience with mental illness. The findings indicate that people’s sentiments about the low availability of mental health services are appearing in social media discussions. The paper will be presented at the American Public Health Association Annual Meeting in October 2020.
Recent news has pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and mental health as major societal health challenges. What part can researchers in your field play, in and out of the lab, in addressing these challenges?
All three issues have significant meaning for social scientists interested in the types of issues I study. The pandemic has further stressed the already overwhelmed public mental health system. Look at what happened to Mr. Daniel Prude in Rochester, NY, not far from where I grew up. The intersection of race, mental illness, COVID-19, and the police being charged with handling a situation that should have been taken care of by an expert mental health crisis team, ended in the most tragic possible outcomes for Mr. Prude, his family, and the wider community.
Today, as I write this response for the IHSI spotlight, I am procrastinating on finishing a paper that is due to the editor. The research examined how access to and use of mental health services impacted the use of crisis services among Black and White adults with serious mental illness. The findings indicate that Black adults with serious mental illness used more crisis services despite having access to and regular use of mental health services. When I first started writing the manuscript, the finding was difficult to wrap my head around. The issues of access and usage were addressed, but the difference still existed.
Reading the news and watching the video of Mr. Prude’s death, something that I had seen too often when serious mental illness, race, and the police collide, sparked a rethinking of my findings. Additionally, discussions within the social sciences over the summer of 2020, driven in part by peaceful protests regarding systemic racism within the criminal justice system that focused on how treating race in our analyses as solely an individual-level trait, could be why we are not fully understanding the impacts of systemic racism, made me see the findings in a much more systemic light. Some colleagues on campus over years have consistently had this conversation, I think of Dr. Helen Neville (Professor, Educational Psychology), Dr. Reginald Alston (Professor, Kinesiology and Community Health), and Dr. Sundiata Cha-Jua (Associate Professor, History) among a number of other professors, but the reality sunk in while trying to make sense of these findings of crisis service usage.
How will your work help to improve society or reach people?
I hope that my research, which is focused on developing, testing, implementing, and evaluating mental health services that are responsive to individual and community needs, contributes, in a small way, to the wider public conversation about how best to assist people with serious mental illness. One of the ways I try to contribute beyond my research is by participating as a member of the American Public Health Association Action Board. The Board is a diverse group of public health experts representing the various aspects of public health practice who actively engage in advocacy for public health issues. Much of our energy is spent advocating on a national level to strengthen the public systems of care that address health, mental health, poverty, and racism.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities that you are particularly excited about right now?
I have a couple of exciting projects right now. One, in particular, received some seed funding from the CSBS and is led by Dr. Sean Mullen from Kinesiology. The project focuses on testing an intervention that combines three evidence-based practices (peer support groups, cognitive behavioral therapy, and exercise) to improve the mental health of first-generation college students experiencing mental illness. The goal is to offer alternative approaches to mental health services that could be used to expand the reach of mental health professionals. As well, the intervention builds on the idea that mental illness can be chronic and therefore requires significant self-care beyond what the health care system is capable of providing. Dr. Mullen and I are looking forward to implementing the intervention soon and to start testing the results.