The University of Texas at Austin Latino Research Initiative

UT researchers bring Texas-based mental health stigma research to Australia

Thu, April 5, 2018
UT researchers bring Texas-based mental health stigma research to Australia
Latino Research Initiative Fellow, Dr. DuPont-Reyes, in front of the Melbourne School of Population & Global Health, Australia

Written by Jessie Temple

What do blue jeans, bourbon, and mental health stigma have in common? The United States exports them all, some mental health researchers suggest. Dr. Alice Villatoro, Research Scientist at the Latino Research Initiative, and Dr. Melissa DuPont-Reyes, currently the Carlos E. Castañeda Postdoctoral Fellow at the Initiative, recently traveled to Melbourne, Australia to present their research on interventions to address the stigma associated with mental illness at the World Psychiatry Association’s (WPA) Thematic Congress and the University of Melbourne. Through comparing research and approaches with colleagues from Australia, India, and elsewhere, they were reminded that U.S. attitudes toward mental illness have a global impact.

In the Texas Stigma Study, Villatoro and DuPont-Reyes, along with Drs. Kris Painter, Bruce Link, and Jo Phelan and Ms. Kay Barkin, sampled 14 middle schools in an urban-suburban area in Texas. The study asked questions to assess students’ level of comfort with symptomatic peers: how close would you be to someone with mental illness? Would you have lunch with that person? Would you work together on a school project? Villatoro and DuPont-Reyes then evaluated how anti-stigma intervention strategies could improve help-seeking in symptomatic students and shift peers’ awareness of and attitudes toward mental illness. Related to this work, they also examined how stigma affects whether and how parents seek help for their children who have mental health problems.

At the WPA conference, Villatoro and DuPont were introduced to other research aimed at reducing stigma and improving mental health and access to care. For example, some Australian schools began implementing the “Mental Health First Aid” program, a behavioral toolset adapted from Australian employers for use in schools. The program trains teachers and peers to recognize mental health problems and stigmas and promotes peer and peer-to-teacher referral for addressing those problems. Many schools have since adopted the program, and now researchers have the problem of finding schools that do not use the program to serve as a control group in their evaluations of Mental Health First Aid.

Programs like Mental Health First Aid improve mental health and access to care. At the same time, steps in one country to remove the stigma associated with mental illness can be hindered by messages from abroad. “We forget how much influence the U.S. has,” notes Villatoro. “Research is a global export, but so is stigma.” At the Melbourne conference, which took place just after the Parkland shooting in the U.S., she found that many attendees were talking about the problem of exporting stigma. In Australia, which has universal health coverage and strict weapons laws, gun violence is seen as unrelated to mental health. Likewise, ongoing research by DuPont-Reyes and Villatoro shows that youth with mental health problems are far likelier to be the targets of aggression, rather than the perpetrators. In the U.S., however, there continues to be a stigma linking mental illness to aggressive behaviors, and that stigma can influence students halfway across the globe.

The export of knowledge, however, is beneficial. For DuPont-Reyes, the opportunity to share findings and ideas with researchers from other parts of the world is invaluable. “Our work is very much focused in a U.S. context,” she says. “We don’t always get to learn from other contexts, including those with different medical, educational, and political systems. Global conferences make us better researchers. This is an opportunity to learn from each other and to think about the potential global impact of our work.”

DuPont-Reyes and Villatoro plan to present their research this fall in Mexico City at the WPA Congress of Psychiatry. Along with their colleagues, they are currently working on tailoring the anti-stigma interventions to groups that require particular consideration, including Latinx and rural populations.

To hear more about Dr. DuPont-Reyes’s research, please join the Center for Mexican American Studies for their annual George I. Sánchez Memorial Lectures in the Social Sciences and Education on Tuesday, April 24, 2018 at 4:30 p.m. in the Gordon-White Building Multi-Purpose Room (GWB 2.206.)

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