Category Archives: Behavioral/mental health

Jul 23 2014
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Facebook: Friend or Foe?

Linda Charmaraman is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College and a former National Institute of Child Health and Human Development postdoctoral scholar. She is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) New Connections grantee, examining the potential of social media networks to promote resiliency in vulnerable populations.

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If you were stressed out and wanted to vent to your friends about it, how would you let them know? Would you pick up the phone and talk, or text? Would you set up time to grab coffee or go for a brisk walk? Or would you post to Facebook why your day just couldn’t get any worse?

As I logged into the recent RWJF/NPR/Harvard School of Public Health-sponsored Stress in America discussion, I identified with the panelists who were dispelling stereotypes about “highly stressed” individuals being high-level executives or those at the top of the ladder. Instead of finding work-related stress as a top concern, as is often played out in the media and popular culture, the researchers were finding that individuals with health concerns, people with disabilities, and low-income individuals were experiencing the highest levels of stress. The panelists talked about the importance of qualities like resiliency and the ability to turn multiple, competing stressors into productive challenges to overcome, and the integral role of communities in shaping, buffering, and/or exacerbating stress.

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Jul 17 2014
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RWJF Scholars in the News: Gun violence, suicide, ‘structural’ versus ‘cultural’ competency, and more.

Around the country, print, broadcast, and online media outlets are covering the groundbreaking work of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) leaders, scholars, fellows, alumni, and grantees. Some recent examples:

An NPR story quotes RWJF Health & Society Scholars program alumnus Andrew Papachristos, PhD, citing his extensive research on gun violence. Papachristos criticizes the lack of context in media coverage of violence, noting that incidents such as the series of shootings over the Fourth of July weekend in Chicago tend to be treated simply as a long stretch of violent incidents. “Treating Chicagoland violence as merely a tally necessarily dehumanizes its victims, but it also obscures so much of the larger story about that violence. It's data without context.” Not only is the murder rate steadily declining in Chicago, but there is a massive disparity in victims of these crimes: “Eighty-five percent of violence—any shootings—happens among 5 percent of people,” Papachristos says.

In an article about libertarianism and state laws related to guns and other topics, the Economist cites a study about the social costs of gun ownership by RWJF Investigator Award in Health Policy Research recipients Philip Cook, PhD, and Jens Ludwig, PhD. It finds that “more guns empirically lead to more gun-related violence, largely because legally purchased guns somehow end up in the hands of criminals via theft,” gun shows, and online sales, which are largely unregulated. To address these issues, Cook and Ludwig suggest making it costlier to buy guns in high-crime areas, and improving the records used to screen gun buyers by including more information on possible mental-health problems, among other proposals. (Free registration required to view article.)

A study co-authored by RWJF Health & Society Scholars program alumnus Alexander Tsai, PhD, MD, finds that men who are more socially connected are half as likely to commit suicide as men considered loners, NBC News reports. The study looks at data on nearly 35,000 men, ages 40 to 75, and finds that those who are more isolated are at greater risk, even if they are not mentally ill. “Public health practitioners think about things like cardiovascular disease as warranting public health attention,” says Tsai, suggesting that suicide may also need attention.

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Jul 11 2014
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How Stress Makes Us Sick

Keely Muscatell, PhD, is a social neuroscientist and psychoneuroimmunologist. She is a post-doctoral scholar in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholars program at the University of California (UC), San Francisco and UC, Berkeley.

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Results from the recent NPR/RWJF/Harvard School of Public Health poll suggesting that Americans are living under high levels of stress probably don’t surprise anyone. In a way, I’ve been taking an informal version of this poll for the last six years, since when I tell people I meet on airplanes or at local bars that I study stress and health, I am unfailingly met with knowing glances and stories about stressors people are facing in their lives. Given that stress is pervasive (and problematic) in modern life, lots of current research in psychology and neuroscience is focused on understanding exactly how stress can get “into our brains” and “under our skin” to make us sick.

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When we think of illness, one of the first things that comes to mind is the immune system, with its lymph nodes, white blood cells, and antibodies hanging around to help us fight off infections and heal our injuries. An especially important component of the immune system involves inflammation. If you’ve ever gotten a paper cut, you’ve probably noticed that the area of skin around the cut tends to turn red and warm up shortly after the injury. This happens because proteins called “pro-inflammatory cytokines” swim through your blood stream to the site of the wound, where they call out to other immune cells to come to the area and help heal the cut. In the short term, this is a good thing; those little cytokines are a key part of healing. But if inflammation becomes widespread throughout the body, cytokines can lead to depression and even physical diseases, like arthritis and heart disease.

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Jul 10 2014
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RWJF Scholars in the News: Healthcare.gov, depression and mortality, stress among nurses, and more.

Around the country, print, broadcast, and online media outlets are covering the groundbreaking work of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) leaders, scholars, fellows, alumni, and grantees. Some recent examples:

Young adult users of Healthcare.gov, the health insurance marketplace established under the Affordable Care Act, recommend that the site offer better explanations of terminology, more clarity about the benefits various plans offer, and checkboxes and other features that make it easier to compare plans. Those are among the findings of a study conducted by RWJF Clinical Scholar Charlene Wong, MD, along with alumni David Asch, MD, MBA, and Raina Merchant, MD, that looked at the experiences of young adults who used the website. The scholars write about their findings in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Wong told the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics blog that these users “may not know what insurance terms mean but they have a lot of expertise and insights about maximizing the usability of the digital platforms that have always been such an integral part of their lives.”

Major depression (also known as “clinical depression”) is associated with an elevated risk of death from cardiovascular disease, according to research covered by Kansas City InfoZine. The study, co-authored by Patrick Krueger, PhD, an RWJF Health & Society Scholars program alumnus, also found that the relationship between depression and early non-suicide mortality is independent of such factors as smoking, exercise, body mass, education, income, and employment status. The authors say the findings indicate that the relationship between depression and mortality is not due solely to the interplay between depression and health-compromising risk factors.

Expanding scope of practice for advanced practice nurses and implementing better management practices could alleviate some stress factors for nurses and improve patient care, Matthew McHugh, PhD, JD, MPH, FAAN, tells Healthline News. For example, in some medical facilities, nurses are empowered to decide if a patient’s urinary catheter should be removed without consulting a doctor, thus preventing delays in care. “Lots of things that don’t require policy change” can have an important impact on patient outcomes and nurses’ job satisfaction, said McHugh, an RWJF Nurse Faculty Scholars alumnus.

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Jun 19 2014
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RWJF Scholars in the News: Debt and health, tax exemption controversy, peer influence on adolescent smokers, and more

Around the country, print, broadcast, and online media outlets are covering the groundbreaking work of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) leaders, scholars, fellows, alumni, and grantees. Some recent examples:

In the context of the Obama administration’s efforts to ease student loan debt, TIME reports on a study by RWJF Health & Society Scholars program alumna Elizabeth Sweet, PhD, that explores the toll debt takes on the borrower’s physical health. Past studies have focused on mental health issues, TIME writes, but Sweet’s research links debt not just to mental health, but also to high blood pressure and general health problems. Sweet says the problem has long-term implications. “These health issues are a warning for more health problems down the road,” she says, “so we have to think about this as a long-term phenomenon.” Forbes also highlights her research.

A Medscape story about a study that shows a direct correlation between vaccinating health care personnel against influenza and reducing cases of flu in the community quotes Mary Lou Manning, PhD, RN, CPNP, an RWJF Executive Nurse Fellows alumna. “We now actually have evidence indicating that higher health care worker vaccination rates in hospitals are having a community effect; they’re actually resulting in lower rates of influenza in the community. That’s remarkably exciting,” says Manning, who is president-elect of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology. The article is available here (free login required).

Modern Healthcare reports on federal efforts to address concerns about tax exemption for certain nonprofit hospitals, citing research by Gary Young, JD, PhD, recipient of an RWJF Investigator Award in Health Policy Research. In order to obtain tax-exempt status, the Affordable Care Act requires nonprofit hospitals to track and report the charity care and community benefits they provide. Young found wide variation in the contributions of nonprofit hospitals. “The current standards and approach to tax exemption for hospitals is raising concerns about a lack of accountability for hospitals,” he says, and creating problems because “hospitals don’t really know what’s expected of them.” The Internal Revenue Service has proposed a rule to address the issue. (Free registration is required to view the article.)

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Jun 4 2014
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The Effect of Cultural Stereotypes on Mental and Public Health

Lorenzo Lorenzo-Luaces graduated from the University of Puerto Rico–Rio Piedras, where he studied cross-cultural differences in suicidality. He is currently a graduate student in the University of Pennsylvania clinical psychology PhD program. Lorenzo-Luaces is an alumnus of Project L/EARN, a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research, and Rutgers University.

Lorenzo Lorenzo-Luaces

The population of groups referred to as “minority” is growing at a faster rate in this country than Caucasians, with estimates suggesting that by 2060, 57 percent of the U.S. population will be non-White. This demographic shift could create a public health concern if racial/ethnic minorities remain underrepresented in mental health research. At present, these populations are less likely to receive mental health care than Whites. When they do receive care, it is usually of lesser quality.

Stereotypes among racial/ethnic minority communities regarding mental health are complex. Research suggests that they tend to have more negative beliefs about mental illnesses than White communities; for example, they are more likely to believe that mental illnesses occur due to factors outside of the individual’s control (e.g., spiritual or environmental reasons). However, despite generally holding more negative views about mental illnesses, research shows that racial/ethnic minorities tend to have less punitive attitudes about the mentally ill. Moreover, they tend to be more accepting about mental health treatments, although they express a clear preference for psychological services over medications.

Differences in access to care, rather than attitudes, likely explain the racial/ethnic gap in service use. Besides the obvious discrepancies in socioeconomic status (SES) between Caucasians and racial/ethnic minorities, the latter’s preference for psychological services may be one barrier to access. This is because, even among the insured, psychological services are more expensive in the short term and harder to access than psychotropic medications. There also are questions as to whether psychological interventions tested largely on White populations are effective for minorities. 

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May 22 2014
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RWJF Scholars in the News: DNA and depression, health impact of foreclosures, and more.

Around the country, print, broadcast, and online media outlets are covering the groundbreaking work of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) leaders, scholars, fellows, alumni, and grantees. Some recent examples:

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita significantly increased the number of stillbirths in the Louisiana parishes most affected by the storms, according to a study by RWJF Health & Society Scholar Sammy Zahran, PhD. The research team concluded that 117 to 205 fetal deaths could be attributed to distress caused by the storms, the New York Times blog Well reports. “You can have two mothers with equal characteristics—age, race, and so on,” Zahran said. “[B]ut if one happens to be in a more severely destroyed area, the risk of stillbirth is higher.” The study was also covered by Daily Mail and HealthDay. Read more about Zahran’s work on the Human Capital Blog.

Genetics play an important role in whether stress makes people depressed, and in how quickly they recover, Madison.com reports. RWJF Health & Society Scholars alumnus Jason Fletcher, PhD, looked at data before and after the 9/11 attacks and correlated it with DNA information reported by survey respondents. He found that 60 percent of participants who carried a particular gene appeared to be at an increased risk for sadness after the attacks. “Overall, the evidence suggests that genetic endowments are an important source of variation in response to a stressful event, in producing some depressive symptoms in young adults,” Fletcher said. MedicalXpress also covered the study.

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May 21 2014
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Communities of Color and Mental Health

David Fakunle, BA, is a first-year doctoral student in the mental health department of The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He is an alumnus of Project L/EARN, a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research at Rutgers University.

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It is always interesting to speak with my relatives when an egregious act of violence occurs, such as the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School back in December 2012. They are always so disheartened about the mindset of an individual who can perpetrate such a horrible act. When I mentioned that this particular perpetrator, Adam Lanza, suffered from considerable mental disorder including possible undiagnosed schizophrenia, the response was something to the effect of, “Okay, so he was crazy.”

That’s it. He was crazy. I love my family dearly, but it saddens me as to how misinformed some of my relatives are about mental health. Notice that I say “misinformed” as opposed to “ignorant” because to me, being ignorant means you are willingly disregarding the information provided to you. But that is the issue: communities of color, in many cases, are not well-informed, if informed at all, about mental health. That is what drives the negative stereotypes that are highly prevalent within communities of color.

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May 20 2014
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The Culture of Mental Health Stigma in Communities of Color

Ayorkor Gaba, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist and project manager at the Center of Alcohol Studies, Rutgers University, as well as a clinical supervisor at the Rutgers Psychological Clinic. She has a private practice in Highland Park, New Jersey and is an American Psychological Association-appointed representative to the United Nations. She is an alumna of Project L/EARN, a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research at Rutgers University.

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Mental illness affects one in five adults in America. A disproportionately high burden of disability from mental disorders exists in communities of color. Research has shown that this higher burden does not arise from a greater prevalence or severity of illnesses in these communities, but stems from individuals in these communities being less likely to receive diagnosis and treatment for their mental illnesses, having less access to and availability of mental health services, receiving less care, and experiencing poorer quality of care. Even after controlling for factors such as health insurance and socioeconomic status, ethnic minority groups still have a higher unmet mental health need than non-Hispanic Whites (Broman, 2012).  

There are a number of factors driving these statistics in our communities, including attitudes, lack of culturally and linguistically appropriate services, distrust, stigma, and more. In our society all racial groups report mental health stigma, but culturally bound stigma may have a differential impact on communities of color. Stigma has been described as a cluster of negative attitudes and beliefs that motivate the general public to fear, reject, avoid, and discriminate against people with mental illnesses (President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, 2003).  Stigma in the general public often leads to internalized stigma at the individual level.  Several studies have shown that internalized stigma is an important mechanism decreasing the willingness to seek mental health treatment.

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May 8 2014
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RWJF Scholars in the News: How breast cancer treatment affects patients’ lives, nurses improving mental health care, male victims of sexual assault, and more.

Around the country, print, broadcast, and online media outlets are covering the groundbreaking work of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) leaders, scholars, fellows, alumni, and grantees. Some recent examples:

Experts are looking at how treatment for breast cancer affects patients’ lives, HealthDay reports. A study by Reshma Jagsi, MD, PhD, an RWJF Physician Faculty Scholars alumna, finds that women who undergo chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer are more likely to end up unemployed than patients whose treatment does not include chemotherapy. Four years after treatment for early stage breast cancer, the study found, more than one-third of those who had chemotherapy were out of work, compared to just over one-quarter of women who had other treatments. “Many of us realize the chemotherapy is going to knock the wind out of your sails temporarily. We [as doctors] have tended to assume women bounced back, and the results here suggest that’s not the case,” Jagsi said. The HealthDay article was republished in U.S. News & World Report, WebMD, and Medicinenet.com, among other outlets.

In the latest edition of the Health Affairs “Conversations” podcast series, Sherry Glied, PhD, recipient of an RWJF Investigator Award in Health Policy Research, discusses lessons learned from the first open enrollment period of the Affordable Care Act. She and other experts also discuss Medicaid expansion, and payment and delivery reforms.

Children of single mothers who unexpectedly lose their jobs suffer severe negative repercussions well into their adult years, according to a study co-authored by Jennie Brand, PhD, MS, an RWJF Health & Society Scholars alumna. They are less likely to graduate from high school and college, and more likely to endure depression, the LA Times reports. Additionally, “[t]he kids, by virtue of having less education and having some social psychological issues, could themselves be at greater risk of job loss in the future,” Brand said. “That’s a concern too, that we could potentially see an inter-generational transmission of job instability.” 

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