Pharmacy Students' Attitudes About Mental Illness Are Easy to Change

Brief interventions can help correct misconceptions that pharmacy students may have toward mental illness.

Brief interventions can help correct misconceptions that pharmacy students may have toward mental illness.

A study recently published in The American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education examined the impact of an invention course at the University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy on third-year pharmacy students’ mental health stigma and knowledge.

Mental health knowledge was measured using 10 true or false questions, while domains of mental health stigma—like recovery, safety, disclosure, separation, and comfort—were measured on a scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” These domains looked at students’ perspectives on whether a patient could recover from mental illness, whether they posed a danger to others, their willingness to disclose a personal mental illness, their willingness to interact with patients with mental illness, and their comfort with patients with mental illness.

The intervention lasted 2.5 hours and included presentations, videos, discussions, and active-learning exercises.

Previous research has shown that around 60% of those with mental illness don’t receive treatment, and adherence to medication is a common problem in this patient population.

“As medication experts, pharmacists can play a key role in assisting patients with medication-related education and therapy management, especially medication adherence,” the researchers wrote.

One possible contributing factor to nonadherence is stigma.

Although pharmacists report that they would be happy to help patients with mental health information, previous research has shown that they don’t play an active role in providing service to this patient population. Pharmacists have also reported being more willing to work with patients with physical illnesses than mental illnesses. In addition, they have shown increased levels of social distance (defined as “unwillingness to interact”) and some stereotypical beliefs about mental illness.

“Because pharmacy students are the next generation of pharmacists, it is important to examine their perceptions regarding stigma towards patients with mental illness,” the study authors wrote.

In the study, 120 students attended a 3-credit pharmacoeconomics course in 2014. The course covered signs and symptoms of depression and schizophrenia, prevalence of the conditions, and first-person accounts from providers and patients.

In one exercise, the students held up “fact” or “fiction” signs when a statement was read by a researcher, and class discussion ensued. Anonymous surveys were also administered before and after the intervention.

Among the 88 students who completed both surveys, about 11.5% were diagnosed with anxiety, 9.2% with depression, 2.3% with bipolar, and 2.3% with another mental illness. Nearly half of them had a close friend or family member with a mental illness.

Some of the researchers’ main findings when comparing stigma and knowledge pre- and post-intervention included the following:

After the intervention for depression and schizophrenia, nearly three-quarters of the students showed stigma domain decreases for recovery, safety, separation, and comfort.

There were bigger decreases in stigma for schizophrenia than depression after the intervention.

In general, students said they disagreed that patients were unable to recover from mental illness. However, at baseline, the students reported that they thought it was harder for patients with schizophrenia (compared with depressed patients) to recover. Student perceptions on recovery between the 2 conditions were similar after the intervention, though.

The biggest change was in safety; the students were less likely to call mentally ill patients unsafe after the intervention.

Students showed a greater interest in close interactions with patients with depression and schizophrenia after the intervention.

Mental health knowledge increased for 5 of the 10 items on the true or false test.

The study authors concluded that brief, interactive mental health training can help future pharmacists learn more about mental health and reduce stigma. They noted that their investigation in specific domains of stigma could help tailor future interventions.

Around half of Americans will experience mental illness at some point in their lifetime, and 1 in 4 Americans will experience mental illness in a given year.