Mental health literacy for youth research series

Research Topics > Mental health literacy for youth research series

Talana is an 8th grade student. Her mother has depression; on her “bad days,” she has trouble getting out of bed in the morning. Sometimes, Talana can’t pay attention in school as she worries that she is not home to take care of her 3-year-old brother. Sometimes, she thinks it is her fault that her mother is having a bad day. She does not tell her friends about her mother’s mental illness. The family doesn’t talk about it either.

One of four people will experience a mental illness during their lifetime. Many teens are living with a family member who has a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. Despite adjusting regularly to varying levels of their relative’s mental illness symptoms, teens like Talana do not know much about mental illness and recovery. They could benefit from increasing their mental health literacy levels so they will be able to recognize common mental health disorders, describe holistic recovery strategies, develop a personalized stress management plan, seek help if they develop what may be mental illness symptoms, and speak up against mental illness stigma. Teens can learn that mental illness is a health condition that is no one’s fault.

I am an associate professor with the MSU School of Social Work and an international expert in family mental health. I have a number of applied research projects designed to help build mental health literacy opportunities for teens with family members, especially a parent, with a mental health disorder.

Youth Education and Support (YES)

The Youth Education and Support Program (YES) is a ten-session peer-group psychoeducation program designed to increase the coping skills and mental health literacy levels of teens who reportedly have a family member with a mental health disorder. Teens engage in discussion, crafts, games, and other interactions to learn about mental illness (depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc.), as well as substance abuse (alcohol, marijuana, inhalants, opioids, etc.) and co-occurring disorders (substance abuse and mental illness). YES participants also learn about stress, positive coping, mental illness stigma, family impacts of mental health disorders, crisis management, help seeking, helping others, and setting life goals. Nearly 90 students have completed the program at community mental health centers and, especially, public schools.

Emerging outcomes of this manualized, fidelity-measured program reveal that youth mental health literacy levels significantly increased from pre to post intervention, and the effects were still holding at three months post intervention. Over 92% of the participants reported using YES learning to engage in positive coping skills, sometimes to very often. In 2011–2013, the program was among 25 innovative prevention programs awarded technical assistance and funding for evaluation enhancement from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Social workers Mark Nester and especially Kristen Hood from Waverly Schools in Lansing, MI, have helped deliver and develop the program. At this time, I am looking to secure funding to develop a training program to move the program toward national dissemination.

One of four people will experience a mental illness during their lifetime. Many teens are living with a family member who has a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. Despite adjusting regularly to varying levels of their relative’s mental illness symptoms, teens like Talana do not know much about mental illness and recovery.

Mental Health Information for Teens (MHIT)

With funding from the Gerstacker Foundation, this project built a youth-informed and tested mental health literacy website for teens. The content development team consists of myself and SSW doctoral student Daniel Cavanaugh. Under my direction, additional undergraduate and graduate MSU student research assistants from social work, psychology, and the Honors College have led the content development. The technology development team currently includes Sarah Swierenga and Jennifer Ismirle from MSU Usability/Accessibility Research and Consulting. School of Social Work Communications Director Tony Beyers also is a member of the technology development team.

The website focuses on the mental health information needs of teens who have a family member, especially a parent, with a mental health disorder. The youth-focused website was released in the fall of 2018 and is among only a few websites in the world that provide information on youth perspectives of family mental illness. The team is sponsoring an MSU student video competition for additional website content with a mini film festival planned for the spring of 2019. While content is still being added, you can view the website at https://mhiteens.org/.

Youth Mental Health Literacy Scales

I joined Daniel Cavanaugh and Monash University Educational Psychology colleagues Christine Grové and Shane Costello to form a team to develop stronger measures of youth mental health literacy. My previous scale is the Knowledge of Mental Illness and Recovery Scale (KMIR). It has undergone additional psychometric testing, yielding an alpha approaching .90 for the instrument and subscales of mental illness, recovery, and stigma.

A second scale is the Youth Mental Health Literacy Scale (YMHL). The scale is at the second draft stage, with 75 questions drawn from an intensive literature review, an expert survey, and interviews/focus groups with youth with a parent or other family member with a mental illness, as well as mental health consumer parents. YMHL includes basic mental illness and recovery questions, combined with those pertaining to youth who have a family member with a mental illness. This scale is currently undergoing psychometric testing. Once developed, these scales will be translated to other languages and tested in other countries of the world that have programs for youth with a parent with a mental illness. Team members hope to find more schools to work with them on testing the scale.

In summary, the YES program, MHIT website, and KMIR/YMHL scale mental health literacy research projects may help teens like Talana access useful and accurate mental health information. The work shows promise of local, national, and international impacts.

One of four people will experience a mental illness during their lifetime. Many teens are living with a family member who has a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. Despite adjusting regularly to varying levels of their relative’s mental illness symptoms, teens like Talana do not know much about mental illness and recovery.