Seeking help for mental health issues inspires others to do the same: study

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“The significant message is that if you go get help yourself, you might also be helping your friends and family,”

– François Thériault, lead author

Nearly one in five people in industrialized countries will suffer from mental health issues or substance abuse disorders in any given year. Less than half of them will seek out professional care — and many will never seek help at all.

So how can we encourage the millions of individuals who suffer from mental health issues to seek the care they need? A group of researchers from the University of Ottawa has shed new light on what motivates people to seek help. The answer, they found, lies with family and friends.

In a study published in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, François Thériault, PhD student, and Dr. Ian Colman, associate professor at the Faculty of Medicine, found that individuals who were aware that family or friends had sought treatment for mental health or substance abuse were more likely to seek care for themselves.

“The significant message is that if you go get help yourself, you might also be helping your friends and family,” says Thériault, the lead author of the study.

The researchers looked at data from Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey 2012 and compared two sets of individuals with similar mental health profiles — 1,933 had spoken to a health professional about their mental health in the last 12 months, and 1,933 hadn’t. They found that people in the first group were 30% more likely to report being aware of family or friends also having received mental health care. In other words, they conclude, simply knowing that others have sought help motivates people to do the same.

“It makes sense that family and friends will provide encouragement about seeking mental health support,” says Colman, Canada Research Chair in Mental Health Epidemiology, who supervised the study. “This study suggests that these encouragements may be a powerful motivation to seek help.”

These findings could help re-frame public messaging and mental health promotion campaigns by harnessing social learning theory, the idea that individuals learn certain behaviours by observing the behaviour of others.  

“Receiving mental health care can have a positive impact on a person’s family members and close friends. Therefore, seeking treatment can be presented as a pro-social behaviour spurred by concerns for others — you aren’t just helping yourself, you are helping your loved ones too,” says Colman.  

Concern for the well-being of others is a powerful motivator of behaviour change that has been used in a variety of health promotion campaigns. For example, smoking cessation appeals that encourage parents to quit for the benefit of their children are more effective than appeals focused solely on the parents’ own health. Similarly, weight loss programs encouraging overweight fathers to become healthy lifestyle role models for their children have also been shown to be effective.

“We’re excited about the study’s potential to help mental health care providers reach more patients,” says Thériault. “Perhaps equally important, though, is the potential for this research to empower the patient.”

Read the study in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology.

Mental health at a glance

In the last year, nearly three million people, or over 10% of Canadians aged 15 and older, reported symptoms consistent with one of the following mental or substance use disorders:

  • bipolar disorder
  • generalized anxiety disorder
  • abuse of or dependence on alcohol, cannabis or other drugs

Source: Statistics Canada, Canadian Community Health Survey: Mental Health, 2012.

The University of Ottawa—A crossroads of cultures and ideas

The University of Ottawa is home to over 50,000 students, faculty and staff, who live, work and study in both French and English. Our campus is a crossroads of cultures and ideas, where bold minds come together to inspire game-changing ideas. We are one of Canada’s top 10 research universities—our professors and researchers explore new approaches to today’s challenges. One of a handful of Canadian universities ranked among the top 200 in the world, we attract exceptional thinkers and welcome diverse perspectives from across the globe.

Media contact

Amélie Ferron-Craig
Media Relations Officer
University of Ottawa
Tel.: 613-863-7221

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