Social Workers in Spotlight at Mental Health Conference

National Institute of Mental Health logo“Fotonovelas,” comic book-style pamphlets that depict a dramatic, soap opera-like plot, have been popular in Spanish-speaking countries for decades.

Now social work researchers at Columbia University in New York City have found these pamphlets effective in disseminating mental health care information in Latin American communities, reducing stigmas about mental illness and prompting more people to seek care.

“Latin American people like them,” said Leopoldo Cabassa, assistant professor of clinical psychiatric social work at Columbia. “They found them educational, they found them entertaining, and they found them useful to share with someone else in their family.”

Columbia’s fotonovela findings were just a sample of social work research presented at the 21st National Institute of Mental Health Conference on Mental Health Services Research in July in Washington. The focus of this year’s meeting was improving public health.

The biennial NIMH conference attracts some of the best and brightest mental health researchers in the nation. More than a dozen social workers presented at the meeting, showing that the profession is gaining recognition for doing research that could benefit public mental health, particularly among vulnerable communities such as the homeless and immigrants, participants said.

Denise Juliano-Bult, a social worker who is chief of NIMH’s Systems Research Program, has also worked to cultivate and support social work research. Social work researchers who presented at the conference were not selected simply because they were social workers — they had to compete against researchers in other mental health disciplines for a chance to have their research highlighted at the event, she said.

“I think a lot of credit goes to the quality of the science and the quality of the scholarship of the folks who applied,” she said.

“It felt good to be there with other social workers,” said Sarah Kye Price, an assistant professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work in Richmond. “I think the group of us representing social work in this very diverse field is growing.”

Price also said there is exciting research going on in the social work community, and some of this research found an ideal audience at the NIMH conference.

For instance, Price presented research that VCU is doing to motivate more social workers, doctors, nurses and other health care providers to encourage pregnant and new mothers to get treatment for postpartum depression.

This would help address a problem that occurs in Virginia and other states, Price said. Widespread screening for postpartum depression may be available but does not necessarily lead to better services for women battling this mental illness, particularly low-income women on Medicaid.

“We don’t want this to happen in Virginia,” she said. “We wanted to see if the data supported our theory model that motivational interviewing would engage clients.”

Seth Kurzban, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California School of Social Work, presented on an intervention program he developed that helps people with severe mental illnesses who are homeless, in prisons or in hospitals manage their own health care.

Part of the program includes group sessions where participants help each other learn to recognize triggers and situations that exacerbate their mental illnesses and the mindfulness and coping skills to address some of these triggers, Kurzban said.

The group sessions are useful because people living with severe mental illness often experience much personal turmoil, prompting them to not communicate with others, Kurzban said. The methods they learn will also help some people with mental illnesses cope after they are released from prison or jail and no longer have therapy available, he said.

“People are released from jail with no money or jobs and yet we expect them to take part in their treatment process,” he said.

Another social work researcher at the conference delved into the role of race. Christopher Larrison, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign School of Social Work, was part of a study showing that having clinicians take part in multicultural counseling competency training may be less effective if the organization they work for doesn’t implement changes to deter clinician biases and strengthen involvement with patients from different ethnic and cultural groups.

Joan Zlotnik, director of NASW’s Social Work Policy Institute, attended the conference, which she said gave mental health professionals an opportunity to convey how services are provided in the “real world.”