UVa researcher’s website aims to fight mental health stigmas

Researchers are hoping that a new website will help people learn more about their unconscious views on mental illness and give them more data for study.

The effort, led in part by a University of Virginia researcher, aims to raise awareness, reduce stigma and gain research data through the site.

Bethany Teachman, principal investigator of the site, is a UVa professor of psychology.

“We expect that over time it will be extremely useful because, while it is not a sample that is representative of a specific population, we expect to get a very large sample,” Teachman said.

The site is a part of the larger Project Implicit, which uses a similar approach to examine assumptions about a wider range of topics.

The unconscious assumptions the site examines are separate from people’s conscious beliefs on an issue, and can be different.

The site asks users to sort different terms in different ways, then it times the user.

Users can gauge their assumptions about a number of issues, ranging from whether they think of themselves as calm through beliefs on such topics as whether the mentally ill are dangerous and whether eating fatty food is shameful.

The website is at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/user/pimh/index.jsp.

Teachman, a clinical psychologist, emphasized that the site doesn’t provide diagnosis. Nor is it a lie detector, she said.

“The nice thing about tools like this is you can apply them very broadly to different domains,” Teachman said.

With time, researchers hope to add different tasks to the site, she said. They expect the website to be up for quite a while, she said.

Stigma is often just another way to say “stereotype,” said Katrina Gay, director of communications at the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In some cases, such associations are even internalized by those living with mental illness, she said.

“They … begin to believe themselves that there’s something very wrong with them, that they’re not whole, that they should feel ashamed,” Gay said.

As a whole, she said, America takes a different approach to those who suffer from serious maladies of the body, such as AIDS and cancer, than it does to those who suffer from mental illness.

“Mental health is the cutting edge for research with automatic measures,” Brian Nosek, director of Project Implicit and a UVa associate professor of psychology, said in a news release. “Many mental health challenges occur despite the person’s intentions and efforts to think, feel or behave otherwise. Automatic measures offer an opportunity to investigate how unintended thought processes contribute to dysfunctional behavior.”

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