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People with self-stigma less likely to seek mental health information, study finds

The likelihood of someone seeking information about how to get mental health counselling, or even just information about mental health issues, is significantly lower for people with high levels of self-stigma, researchers found. This link was clear even though they could seek information privately and anonymously, and even in people with high levels of psychological distress.

It’s known that stigma and negative attitudes surrounding mental illness can be a barrier to seeking help for mental health problems. When those negative attitudes toward mental illness and seeking treatment are internalized, it becomes self-stigma, meaning that someone applies those negative attitudes to herself.

Researchers at Iowa State University, led by psychology graduate student Daniel Lannin, wanted to see if self-stigma was linked to likelihood of seeking information about mental health issues and information about counselling. They recruited 370 undergraduate students who voluntarily took part in the study. The participants received class credit for completing an online survey that assessed their level of self-stigma, their attitudes toward seeking help for mental health issues, and their level of psychological distress. The online surveys were private and anonymous.

At the end of the survey, each student was asked if she or he would like to be directed to a student counselling service website for information about how to seek counselling. All the students were also asked if they would like to be directed to a website for more information about mental health issues.

After analyzing the students’ responses, the researchers found a significant link between self-stigma and not seeking information about counselling or mental illness.

People who had high levels of self-stigma were more likely to have negative attitudes about psychological counselling. Those negative attitudes about counselling were further linked to a lower likelihood of seeking information about counselling or about mental health issues.

The researchers also found that these links held true in people who were most at risk for mental health issues. When the researchers analyzed the results for a sub-group of students who had higher scores for psychological distress, they found significant links between self-stigma and likelihood of seeking information.

Among people with higher levels of psychological distress, the probability of seeking mental health information was 8.5 per cent in people with high self-stigma, compared to 17.1 per cent in those with low self-stigma. Probability of seeking counselling information was 8.4 per cent for people with high self-stigma, compared to 15 per cent for those with low-self-stigma.

The study authors note that the participants were primarily white, and all had some college education. Further study is needed to see if the results are similar for other groups.

The study was published online in the Journal of Counselling Psychology on June 14, 2016.

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  • Women's College Hospital