According to new research conducted at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, the proportion of soldiers using mental health services nearly doubled between 2003 and 2011. Furthermore, researchers found a small but significant decrease in the perceived stigma associated with seeking mental health services.

In 2003, only about 8 percent of soldiers sought mental health services. In 2011, about 15 percent of soldiers did so. Even with the increase in the number of soldiers seeking mental health help, researcher Phillip Quartana stated that two-thirds of soldiers with post-traumatic stress (PTSD) or major depression symptoms did not seek treatment between 2002 and 2011. More than 25 percent of active infantry soldiers from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, dating back to the beginning of the conflicts in 2001, met self-reported criteria for these diagnoses. While the number of soldiers seeking help has increased and the stigma associated with seeking mental health services has decreased, these results demonstrate that more progress is needed to increase soldiers’ use of mental health care services.

Researchers used data from active-duty personnel who completed Health-Related Behavior Surveys between 2002 and 2011. This study is the first to empirically examine trends concerning utilization of services and stigma across multiple wars.

The study was published online in the American Journal of Public Health.
As those who work in the mental health arena know all too well, the stigma associated with mental illness often prevents people from seeking the help they need. Students at the University of Leeds in the U.K. chose to confront that stigma by sharing their personal struggles with mental illness in a powerful video. Directed by the university union’s welfare officer Harriet Rankin and featuring members of the Leeds “Mind Matters” mental health support group, the video has gone viral and is now being shared by major internet news outlets in the U.K. and the U.S.

The students’ message is very simple: You are not alone, and help is available. Please take a moment to view the video now!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=kYwyzkb67pA

 
Hallucinations, a new book by Oliver Sacks, MD, hit store shelves (and e-readers) this month, and—like many of his other books—it is sparking conversations not only in the scientific community but also more widely among the reading public.

Sacks is a clinical neurologist and professor at New York University School of Medicine. He is best known for his books that examine case studies from his own research and practice, including The Mind’s Eye, Musicophilia, Uncle Tungsten, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Awakenings (which inspired the 1990 feature film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams).

In this new book, Sacks asserts that, contrary to popular belief, hallucinations are not the sole purview of the mentally ill. In fact, they are surprisingly common among individuals with sensory deprivation (e.g., blindness) or medical conditions such as migraine, epilepsy, or Parkinson’s. Many healthy people experience hallucinations in the moments before sleep or upon waking, according to Sacks. Strong emotions associated with major life changes can trigger hallucinations, for example, when a bereaved spouse experiences a “visit” from his or her lost loved one. And of course, hallucinations can be a side effect of medication or intoxicants.

Hallucinations is a collection of fascinating stories, anecdotes, and case studies. Sacks describes a woman who hears not spoken voices, but music; a man who smells roast beef when he feels a migraine coming on; and a respected botanist who walks into his lab, only to see himself already at work. Drawing on history, art, religion, and popular culture, Sacks seeks to describe and better understand the experience of hallucination. As a clinician and researcher, he also delves into the biology of the brain and the neurological reasons behind many types of hallucinations.

With this book, Sacks hopes to ameliorate some of the stigma associated with hallucinations. In a recent interview with Slate magazine, he said, “I think there’s a common view, often shared by doctors, that hallucinations denote madness—especially if there’s any hearing of voices. I hope I can defuse or de-stigmatize this a bit. This can be felt very much by patients. There was a remarkable study of elderly people with impaired vision, and it turned out that many had elaborate hallucinations, but very few acknowledged anything until they found a doctor whom they trusted.”

In a 2009 TED Talk entitled “What Hallucination Reveals About Our Minds,” Sacks provides an introduction to his subject, along with some background on the work that led to his recent book. The 20-minute TED Talk is available free online, so take a look—and let us know what you think. PAR wants to hear from you, so leave a comment and join the conversation!
As those who work in the field of mental health know only too well, mental illness carries a stigma that adds a significant burden to the challenges already facing many clients. Unlike other medical conditions such as cancer or heart disease, mental illness is often seen as a personal weakness or a character flaw. The detrimental effects of this stigma are well understood. In his 1999 Mental Health Report, former Surgeon General David Satcher asserted that “Stigma assumes many forms, both subtle and overt. It appears as prejudice and discrimination, fear, distrust, and stereotyping. It prompts many people to avoid working, socializing, and living with people who have a mental disorder. Stigma impedes people from seeking help for fear the confidentiality of their diagnosis or treatment will be breached.”

What perpetuates the stigma? Unfortunately, it’s not just outdated social attitudes. In fact, negative images and distortions about mental illness abound in current popular media. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), an advocacy group for people affected by mental illness, publishes a regular column on their website called “StigmaBusters”, which asks members to send in alerts about stereotypes they find in the media. Examples include a November 2010 episode of the popular musical comedy “Glee”, which mocked and trivialized bipolar disorder in a scene where a “crazed” Mary Todd Lincoln is shown shouting at a teapot. A recent issue of Vs., a high-end fashion magazine, features actress Eva Mendes as a patient in a psychiatric institution, writhing on a bed to keep from being restrained. A new television commercial for Burger King shows “The King” on a rampage, chased and then taken away by men in white coats. Some of the most egregious examples have appeared around Halloween. This past fall, “The Pennhurst Asylum,” a Halloween “insane asylum” attraction, opened on the grounds of the former Pennhurst State School and Hospital outside Philadelphia, sparking a controversy that included protests from former residents of the facility (http://www.nami.org/).

If negative images in the media are helping to form the popular perception of mental illness, what are some ways to help clients cope with their effects and counter the stereotypes that the images perpetuate? Advocacy organizations like NAMI offer support to individuals with mental illness and their families, and participating in groups like “StigmaBusters” is one way that people can become advocates, doing their part to fight inaccurate and hurtful representations of mental illness. The Mayo Clinic website (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/mental-health) is another excellent resource that describes steps to cope with stigma, including advice on how to seek support and educate others about mental illness.

And it’s not all bad news in the media. The Voice Awards, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), recognize writers and producers of television and film who have given voice to people with mental health problems by incorporating dignified, respectful, and accurate portrayals of people with mental illness into their scripts, programs, and productions. In 2010, a Voice Award for best documentary went to actor Joe Pantoliano for his film No Kidding, Me Too!, which explores the journey of several individuals with mental illness and includes a candid account of his personal struggle with depression. Although best known for his roles in The Matrix, Memento, and the televisions series “The Sopranos,” Pantoliano is an activist, working to raise social awareness and understanding of mental health through a non-profit organization that he created to encourage members of the entertainment industry to help educate the public about mental illness. “We know this is a tough fight,” says Pantoliano. “We know years of ingrained socialization causes people to recoil or isolate anyone with the scarlet letter of mental illness…. However, we also know that by releasing the talents of those with mental illness—by giving them the opportunity to use their outstanding artistic and intellectual skills—we will vastly improve the world. And this is a cause worth supporting” (http://nkm2.org/about-us/).

In your practice, is stigma affecting your clients? How do you help clients to cope with stigma, and what resources have you found to be most useful? We want to hear from you, so post your comments and let’s start the conversation!