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Can Patient Engagement Efforts Help Combat the Stigma of Mental Illness?

Patient Engagement Strategies for Mentally Ill People

After Glenn Close walks the red carpet in New York City on November 5, she’ll appear center stage to receive an award. Not an Emmy, a Tony or a Golden Globe. Not even an Oscar. Instead, she will be accepting the WebMD Health Hero People’s Choice Award, honoring her efforts to bring awareness to—and fight the stigma of—mental illness. This isn’t the first time we’ve noted Close’s support of those with mental illness, either. But the combined efforts of advocates like Close, mental health experts and members of Congress are bringing mental health into the light. Now, it just remains to be seen if healthcare providers can put effective patient engagement strategies in place to erase the stigma altogether.

Bridging the Distance between Awareness and Care

Several years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 57 percent of adults believe that people are caring and sympathetic towards those struggling with mental illness. Yet only 25 percent of people with mental health issues felt the same. Obviously, there was a disconnect then. Now, while bringing mental illness into the light is helping to address the issue, hospitals and other healthcare providers need to develop patient engagement strategies that do a better job of connecting with the right people to have a positive impact on patients.

As students began returning to college campuses this fall, CNN reported on a movement to end the stigma around mental health issues to improve suicide prevention. Matthew Fullen, program manager for The Ohio State University’s Suicide Prevention Program, told CNN, “We need to be able to ask the question, ‘Are you struggling with depression? Are you struggling with suicidal thoughts?’” By removing the stigma, the University—and others across the country—are hoping to put a dent in some alarming statistics. According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State:

  • The number of students who have seriously considered suicide at some time in their lives grew from 25 percent in the 2010 – 2011 academic year to 31 percent in the 2013-2014 academic year.
  • The number of students who purposely harm themselves by cutting, burning or hair pulling also increased by 3 percent, to 24 percent, within the same time span.

While suicide attempts have not increased as significantly, the fact is that suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24, and more than 1,000 college students end their own lives annually.  

Culturally Competent Care on Campus

If hospitals and other healthcare providers are interested in seeing what kinds of patient engagement strategies work, they may well want to look at efforts being rolled out at universities across the country. And they aren’t all centered on the patient. Like some other colleges and universities, The Ohio State University received a Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act grant. Named in honor of former Senator Gordon Smith’s son who committed suicide while attending college, the monies have been used to support education and training in suicide prevention, and the engagement campaign involves not just patients but peers, faculty and staff.  Before the grant, only 12.6 percent of students received such training. As of 2014, the number of Ohio State students who report having suicide prevention training has risen to 41.8 percent.

Another grant recipient, Western Michigan University, puts mental health on stage—literally. Each year, during new student orientation, the school’s Theatre for Community Health acts out different scenarios that bring the warning signs of depression and other mental health struggles to life. These innovators are addressing the issues in a context that is relevant to the culture of the campus.  As more people learn about mental illness and as more conversations take place in public settings—whether on a small stage on a college campus or at a gala event in New York City—the stigma will be replaced by understanding.

While your hospital’s patient engagement strategies may not take such a creative approach, you do need to consider that not all individuals will respond to a one-size-fits-all campaign. In order to effectively engage patients, you need to understand what motivates and influences them – and then develop strategies that appeal to those different psychographic segments. Psychographics, as they pertain to healthcare consumers’ values, personalities, and lifestyles, provide a context upon which to anchor communications.  That’s when you’ll be able to move from offering advice to providing meaningful, culturally competent care. Are you ready?   

Psychographic Segmentation and its Practical Application in Patient Engagement and Behavior Change


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