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Community News
MINDS Changing Students' View of Mental Illness
Psychiatric News
Volume 39 Number 19 page 18-19

A survey of almost 1,000 students participating in a school-based mental health awareness program revealed that it is reaching its intended audience with at least two important messages: mental illnesses are treatable, and help is never far away.

The Mental Illness Needs Discussion Series (MINDS) began in 1998 in two ninth-grade health classes in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and has since moved to at least 80 high schools and middle schools (Psychiatric News, November 15, 2002).

"Last year, we spoke to almost 10,000 students," MINDS President and Founder Heather Irish told Psychiatric News, adding that she would like to see students outside Michigan benefit from the program as well.

For one day each year in participating schools, health class becomes a forum for Irish and her colleague, Senta Furman, to teach students the ABCs of mental illness.

Aside from learning about the symptoms and descriptions of mental illnesses such as mood and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and addiction, students actually see the effects of mental illness on the brain.

Part of the MINDS curriculum includes transparencies with positron emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance imaging scans of brains of people affected by bipolar disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, for instance.

Posters of famous people with mental illnesses—Kurt Cobain, Princess Diana, and Abraham Lincoln, to name a few— adorn the walls of the classroom to remind students that mental illnesses are ubiquitous.FIG1

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Heather Irish: "For years we've had anecdotal evidence that MINDS is making a dramatic impact and is changing students' lives. Now we have the hard data to prove it." 

Throughout the presentation, Irish said, students learn that mental illnesses can be treated successfully and that help is available.

"We emphasize to the students that if they want help, it's available in their schools," Irish noted. She advises students to go to a school social worker or psychologist, or if none is available, to see the school counselor.

Since some school counselors may not have received much instruction on mental health issues common among youngsters, Irish instructs students to inquire about whether the school counselor is trained to handle mental health problems.

"We're teaching the students how to be good consumers," she noted.

Students cite stigma and privacy issues first among reasons why some people may not want to seek help for a mental health problem, Irish observed, and are consistently surprised when they learn therapy sessions are confidential.

They leave with two brochures. One describes a number of mental illnesses and their symptoms, and the other is a guide to local, state, and national mental health resources and suggested reading.

In fall 2003, Irish, along with researchers at the University of Michigan's department of psychiatry, decided to survey students to see whether the data concurred with Irish's anecdotal experiences of students becoming enlightened about mental illnesses. They received funding for the study from the American Psychiatric Foundation and the Klingenstein Third Generation Foundation.

They surveyed 981 students in six Michigan schools about their knowledge of and attitudes toward mental health issues. Of those students, 742 participated in the MINDS seminar and completed the same survey before and after the seminar. A control group of 239 students who did not participate in the seminar also completed the survey.

Researchers compared the responses of those who completed the survey before the MINDS seminar, including those in the control group, with those of the students who completed the survey following the seminar.

The responses showed that before participating in MINDS, 82 percent of students agreed with the statement "Mental illnesses are treatable." After participating in the seminar, 94 percent of students agreed.

Researchers also found the following:

After surveying students, Irish and her colleagues took note of another important finding—that the proportion of students who say they have experienced a mental illness, including substance abuse, rose from 17 percent to 27 percent.

Irish noted that the proportion of students who identified themselves as having a mental illness after the MINDS seminar was "more realistic in terms of normal prevalence rates" of mental illness in society.

Said Irish, "We have many students who approach us after the seminar and say, `I've felt this way for a long time, but I didn't know it was a problem. Now I know there is a name for it.'"

"When we started this program," Irish continued, "we weren't sure how the students would receive the information or the topic in general, but again and again we have students who will seek us out to tell us, `Because of MINDS, I got help and now I'm better,' or `I was going to kill myself. Then I heard the MINDS presentation, and realized I had an illness. I saw a doctor and now I'm doing great.'"

Irish said she feels like "the luckiest person in the world," because "I get to give them the good news."

More information about the Mental Illness Needs Discussion Series is posted online at<www.mindsprogram.org>.

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Heather Irish: "For years we've had anecdotal evidence that MINDS is making a dramatic impact and is changing students' lives. Now we have the hard data to prove it." 

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