Student-peer organization helps erase stigma tied to mental-health issues: Study

The study focused on college campuses.

June 27, 2018, 12:44 AM

With news of rising suicide rates, there is a growing movement to remove the stigma associated with mental health throughout the nation.

That effort includes college campuses, where previous national studies showed that 11 percent of students reported suicidal thoughts but only 24 percent got the treatment they needed and that number has since increased.

One organization in particular, Active Minds, has been crucial in helping remove the stigma tied to mental health -- and a study says the group is getting results.

Active Minds is a student-peer organization where students at different college campuses are in charge of how they implement their programs. It's the oldest national nonprofit organization that emphasizes the importance of college populations' becoming comfortable with conversations on mental health.

A new study, implemented through Active Minds, covered 12 campuses throughout California during the 2016-2017 academic year. According to their research, college students know more about the importance of mental health and found decreased stigma around mental health issues and about asking for help.

Dr. Bradley Stein, M.D./Ph.D., senior physicians policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and the evaluator of this Active Minds study, explained: "More than 1,000 students across California were recruited through college fairs, social media and a variety of other ways. The first survey was taken in September. Then the same questions from that survey were asked in November and April. Each survey we asked the same questions, and over time we saw what happened with the answers of the students."

The surveys the researchers used are called a Likert scale, which is an "agreement" scale that measures someone's agreement with various statements. Higher scores meant a greater feeling of stigmatization around mental-health problems.

The researchers were pleasantly surprised with the results from the study -- decreased agreement scores over time, meaning less stigma.

"As we followed the college students, we found that they became more aware and more involved in mental health issues, based on their responses," Stein said.

The results showed students who began with "low engagement" with information from Active Minds -- most of the student body, about 60 percent -- ended up with lower scores, i.e. less stigma, and were more knowledgeable about mental health issues at the end of the year.

"As a child and adolescent psychiatrist,” Stein told ABC News, "I have seen that there is a need to improve college mental health. This program, Active Minds, actually was started by a young lady after her brother committed suicide. With this peer-driven group, we can address stigma on college campuses to educate and get college students the help they need throughout the country."

Denise Powell, M.D. candidate, is a student from Jackson, Mississippi, working in the ABC News Medical Unit.