MOUNT PLEASANT – Montague High School graduate and college professor Jim Gerhart said his recently received Provost Award for Research from Central Michigan University (CMU) will allow him to spend more time researching and less time teaching.
Gerhart explained that he is looking forward to spending more of his time doing research, but upon further reflection said he will probably miss teaching his students as well.
With a PhD in psychology, Gerhart’s work primarily deals with studying health psychology and how it relates to illness.
“I’m a professor at CMU, I study health psychology in general, but really how the stress of an illness makes it harder to deal with the illness. Like how anger makes pain harder to manage, and really how fear makes getting good care difficult when they have something like cancer,” said Gerhart.
Gerhart continued, “The whole sort of package of the research that I do was recognized all together. Really a lot of it has been around palliative care.
“What I think might be interesting for people in White Lake is that we know that it is hard for people to get good supportive care around the state. Especially when you get away from Grand Rapids, Lansing or the Detroit area. There aren’t really any good palliative care centers.”
Palliative care as he describes is coming up with a treatment plan that improves the quality of life for the patient and lessens their suffering. Rooted in the idea of personalizing medicine, Gerhart focuses on looking at patient psychology and how therapy or other sorts of modalities outside the normal course of treatment could benefit.
Something he has found from the work that he does is that it isn’t uncommon for physicians to see psychological interventions as merely an end-of-life option when there is nothing more they can do to treat a patient’s illness. However, Gerhart believes that this is only scratching the surface when it comes to applying these concepts to treatment.
“Really with that, other doctors outside of the profession, sort of think that these treatments that are meant to manage stress deal with pain and the treatment of side effects, they just confuse it for hospice. And they think that if they refer you, it means we are giving up on trying to cure and manage your condition.”
Moving on to the next step, Gerhart said he has secured grant funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund to do palliative care training.
“It is so that we can kind of connect providers. Some of them will be palliative care specialists. They might be the content experts. Other folks we want involved are physician’ assistants, nurses and primary care doctors,” said Gerhart.
“Sort of like an attitude shift. A lot of what we do in medicine, nursing and mental health is palliating. We are trying to make it so people can manage symptoms. It might not go away completely or for good. But if we can get it to manageable level people can focus on functioning, working and enjoying their lives again.”
It was during his time at Montague High School that Gerhart discovered an interest in psychology. He said he took a class as a student thinking it would be easy to pass, but had his “mind blown” by what he was learning.
“I was pretty good student for a while and then I lost my motivation for a while my junior year. Then I took a psychology class because I thought it would be easy. Once I figured out you could use science to predict what people would do and then you could help them it really clicked with me.”
He said the other class that played a big impact on him was his high school statistics class. He never would have figured that you could quantify people’s behavior.
But as a college student he was at a bit of a crossroads. He said he wasn’t sure what direction he wanted to go in, and thought at first, he’d be working as a therapist, but later decided that research was more of a calling.
“I started out thinking I was going to council a whole bunch of depressed teenagers and then it started to shift and I got more and more excited about research over time.”
There were two critical moments, as he describes it, during that time that helped him settle on researching palliative care issues.
The first moment came from working with prisoners.
“I was working in a prison here in middle of Michigan during grad school. There are a lot of people there having trouble with trauma. I said if there is any one, I am going to help people that are abusing drugs and committing violence then I have to understand trauma first.”
The next moment came from time spent in 2010 working with veterans at the VA Hospital. He said he went there to help veteran’s out with their trauma and become comfortable with their life coming to an end.
He said the thing that really brought the veteran’s comfort during that time was just having someone to share their stories with.
With more time on his hands to do his research, Gerhart said he wants to make sure he is coming up with ways that don’t let people fall through the cracks.
Part of that is uncovering what types of treatment work for different types of people. A lot of it depends on the person; in the area of pain relief, he said some people might do better with psychological interventions like meditation, but for others something like physical therapy have a greater effect.
Gerhart said that more passive people might not do well with either one of those interventions, and instead might do best with something like chiropractic manipulation or medications. In the past he said a lot of this was more theoretical, but now it is become more commonplace with the medical community.
“I think there has been a shift. What I have seen in medicine at least. We talked a lot about attitude. Psychology and social determents of health is important. But it felt like it was more theoretical, like something you saw in a textbook. Now I do think these conversations are a little bit more on the forefront.”
To learn more about Gerhart visit his faculty page at: https://www.cmich.edu/colleges/class/Psychology/Faculty/Pages/James-Gerhart.asp