Improving the health literacy of Americans on mental health is on ongoing concern, and a new study targets to a special population — adolescents.
Experts report that teens are often fearful about sharing their feelings or moods and emotions. Unfortunately, this means they often do not receive appropriate care for what may be the early stages of mental illness.
Case Western Reserve University researcher Melissa Pinto-Foltz, Ph.D., decided to study how she could help teens speak up, seek help and then stick with treatments that get them feeling better.
“About one in five Americans has a mental illness, with half of these individuals first experiencing symptoms of mental illness in their teen years,” she said.
She found a good way to help teens learn about mental illness and lessen negative attitudes was through school.
Pinto-Foltz studied 156 girls in the 9th and 10th grade in a research project set in public high schools in Louisville, Ky. About half the group participated in a special national program called In Our Own Voice, offered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the other half did not see it.
More than 200,000 people across the U.S. have seen the In Our Own Voice program, which is frequently given in schools, churches and other community settings. The one-hour program involves learning through storytelling and changing attitudes through interacting with people who are in sustained recovery from mental illness. These individuals tell their personal stories of what it was like to first discover the illness and get through their recovery from the illness.
While the program is widely used across the U.S., no evidence exists that it is effective with teens, nor has the impact of the program been examined for an extended time period.
Pinto-Foltz used the In Our Own Voice program with the teens and reported her findings in Social Science and Medicine.
“We tell stories every day to friends, family and co-workers,” she said. “The whole idea behind this approach is that people learn about the world through stories, and interacting with people with mental illness may violate previously held stereotypes. We wanted to see if teens responded to these interactions with and stories told by people with mental illness in such a way that it decreased stigma associated with mental illness and improved their knowledge of mental illness.”
She followed participants four times over 10 weeks: first to study any stigmas and knowledge they had about mental illness, then in response to the In Our Own Voice program. Pinto-Foltz conducted follow-up interviews shortly after girls saw the program and again at weeks 4 and 8 to see if there were changes in the level of stigma associated with mental illness and whether their knowledge of mental illness increased.
The study found that the In Our Own Voice storytelling program is useful as a starting point to tackle stigma and improve mental health literacy among adolescents using existing approaches, said Pinto-Foltz.
Research findings suggest a more extended intervention is necessary to work through stigmas that hinder acceptance of individuals with mental illness.
In the future, she added that we can increase our chance of combating stigma and increasing mental health knowledge by providing more opportunities for adolescents to interact with the presenters following the program.
She suggested continued interaction with the presenters through projects with the girls or visits to their health classes for further discussions about mental illness.
“The girls were eager for more interaction with the presenters,” Pinto-Foltz explained.
“They kept asking me when the presenters would return to tell more stories. After the program, the girls had many lingering questions about mental illness. Increasing their interaction with the presenters would allow an opportunity to clarify their questions about mental illness, increase their comfort in interacting with individuals with mental illness, and decrease stigma.”
Meanwhile in the follow-up with the girls at four and eight weeks, Pinto-Foltz found that girls who participated in In Our Own Voice had improved mental health knowledge when compared to the girls who did not receive the program.
Stigma levels for both groups remained the same, calling for further examination of approaches to tackle this important and pervasive problem, Pinto-Foltz said.
Source: Case-Western Reserve University