Wednesday, August 7, 2019

College Program May Change Student Attitudes About Mental Illness

Years after the launch of a campus program to reduce stigma around mental illness at Indiana University, some college students there reported less prejudice toward people with mental illness, according to a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. The students also reported a greater willingness to talk about mental illness after exposure to the program.

“A long-term, community-based, student empowerment approach with institutional supports is a promising avenue to reduce stigma on college campuses, develop the next generation of mental health leaders, and potentially reduce societal levels of stigma in the long run,” wrote Bernice A. Pescosolido, Ph.D., of Indiana University (IU) and colleagues.

The U(niversity) Bring Change to Mind (UBC2M) program is a student-led effort to create “safe and stigma-free zones” on college campuses that was developed and launched in 2014. Through UBC2M, Indiana University students led such activities as biweekly club meetings; academic and on-campus events, including guest and student speakers who talked about personal experiences with mental illness; an annual campus anti-stigma campaign competition; and an annual UBC2M gala.

To examine the impact of the program, Pescosolido and colleagues invited first-year students to complete a web-based survey on stigma. The survey asked students to consider how strongly they agreed with statements reflecting prejudice toward people with mental illness, such as the following: “I am frightened to be around persons with a history of mental illness” (general prejudice) and “Students who have a history of mental illness should not be admitted to IU” (college-specific prejudice). The students were asked to complete the web-based survey again during their third year. A total of 1,193 students completed both waves of the survey.

Significant changes in stigma occurred, on average, for about 11% to 14% of the population, the authors reported. Student participation in multiple UBC2M events was associated with reductions in both general and college-specific prejudice toward people with mental illness; these reductions were the greatest in respondents who reported participation in four or more UBC2M-sponsored events since the initial survey.

There was no significant change in general or college-specific prejudice toward people with mental illness in respondents who reported only general awareness of UBC2M (for example, familiarity with program logo and/or exposure to program through social media). However, regardless of the respondents’ level of active involvement with UBC2M activities, those aware of the program reported feeling more open to talk about mental health problems and stigma issues on campus when surveyed during their third year.

“Our finding that active and passive engagement predict more favorable normative beliefs about [mental health] (e.g., perceptions of campus mental health culture, mental health conversation partners) suggests that the program may also shift the larger campus culture [toward greater understanding of mental illness]. Because normative beliefs have a powerful effect on individuals’ attitudes and beliefs, this shift may lead to more widespread and potentially longer lasting stigma reduction.”

For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “Anxious, Stressed, and Lonely College Students Seek Out Campus MH Services” and the Psychiatric Services article “Increased Rates of Mental Health Service Utilization by U.S. College Students: 10-Year Population-Level Trends (2007–2017).”

(Image: iStock/gradyreese)