Mental Health Stigma and Its Effects on Treatment-Related Outcomes

A Narrative Review

Published in: Military Medicine [Epub March 2018]. doi:10.1093/milmed/usx219

Posted on RAND.org on April 18, 2018

by Jennifer L. Cerully, Joie D. Acosta, Jennifer Sloan

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Introduction

Many service members experiencing symptoms of mental health conditions do not receive mental health care for these symptoms. The stigma associated with having a mental health condition or seeking treatment is often cited as a specific barrier to mental health care. However, study results bearing on the question of whether and how stigma may reduce treatment-seeking have been inconsistent.

Methods

We searched 10 databases for sources published between 2004 and 2014 that prospectively linked stigma to treatment-related outcomes (such as treatment seeking, retention, and reports of symptoms) using longitudinal data and predictive models. The searches yielded 2,409 sources. After reviewing titles and abstracts for relevance, we retained 15 sources to undergo full-text review.

Results

Overall, this review illustrates that evidence exploring the direct effect of stigma on treatment-related outcomes is still scant. We identified two studies whose outcomes conflict when it comes to stigma and treatment-initiation and utilization, and three studies found no relationship between stigma and treatment-initiation and utilization. One study suggested that the relationship between stigma and experience of symptoms is nuanced and may depend on the type of stigma and types of symptoms considered. Meager evidence was available to inform the relationship between stigma and treatment duration, attrition, and quality of life/functioning. The evidence was not sufficient to draw conclusions about the state of these relationships. No conclusions could be made about the direct impact of stigma on treatment-related outcomes among military service members given that only two studies explored this relationship among military service members.

Conclusion

Current research does not provide a true understanding of the degree to which mental illness stigma affects treatment-related outcomes for service members experiencing mental health challenges. This understanding could only be developed through a longitudinal study assessing prospectively whether stigma affects treatment-utilization in the military. Should such a study show that stigma reduces treatment-utilization, the military would need to consider whether changes to their current approaches to stigma reduction are warranted.

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