To coincide with the Mental Health Month Blog Party organised by the APA, I've collated some highlights from our coverage of mental health issues here at the BPS Research Digest.
What is mental illness? In 2010 I reported on a Psychological Medicine editorial that dissected the definition used by the fourth edition of US psychiatry's diagnostic manual. Another post from 2006 explored differences in the way the public and experts view mental disorders. How we conceive of mental illness isn't only of theoretical interest, it can have an impact on people's lives. For example, this post showed that biological accounts of mental illness may dent patients’ hope and increase stigma.
Mental illness is normal. Several studies I've covered have illustrated just how common mental health problems are. One paper suggested that one in two of us will experience mental difficulties in our life-times. Another asked Who doesn't suffer from paranoia? Other research has shown that psychotic symptoms aren't always pathological and tried to find out how non-problematic symptoms differ from those experienced by patients. Another paper had a similar aim: The same voices, heard differently?
Drug-free treatment is often helpful. Despite widespread beliefs to the contrary, there are drug-free ways to help people with schizophrenia, including using CBT. In fact, psychotherapy has a drug-like effect on the brain. In a guest post, Richard Bentall described the treatment of schizophrenia with maximum kindness and minimum medication. Elsewhere, I covered new research showing that fears could be unlearned without the use of drugs. I reported on a computer game that holds promise in helping prevent traumatic flashbacks. I've also uncovered some novel and straightforward approaches to improving mental health, including floral arrangement as a cognitive training tool for schizophrenia and Grab it, bag it, bin it - a new approach to psychological problem solving.
Self-help strategies sometimes backfire. But we shouldn't assume that all interventions, however well-intentioned, will be beneficial. Popular strategies or tools for being happier or more successful can sometimes be harmful, as these posts demonstrate: CBT-based self-help books can do more harm than good. Positive psychology exercises can be harmful for some Why positive fantasies make your dreams less likely to come true. A related feature article in The Psychologist magazine delved into the world of unscrupulous therapies: When therapy causes harm.
Research into the therapeutic process. Lots of research in psychology tries to get to the bottom of the factors that make therapy effective. For example, this paper put cognitive therapy on the couch. Another found that therapy is more effective when psychologists focus on their clients' strengths (yet another showed that successful therapists focus on their clients' strengths). This paper examined those times when clients in therapy show sudden, dramatic improvements. Other papers I've covered have asked some awkward and tricky questions about therapy - for example, is it really true that therapists don't improve with experience? Can therapists tell when their clients have deteriorated? What happens when therapists have the hots for their clients? And what should a therapist do if a client confesses to murder? Other studies looked at therapy from the clients' perspective, for example What do clients think CBT will be like and how is it really?
Mental health research isn't easy. Because mental health problems are so widespread, it's not always easy to conduct properly controlled experiments, as these posts show: Just how non-clinical are so-called non-clinical community samples? and Beware the "super well" - why the controls in psychology research are often too healthy.
Intriguing case studies. I've covered a few of these, such as the boy who thought 9/11 was his fault and the time that a spontaneous panic attack was caught during a brain imaging scan.
Be happy. There's reason for hope. Sometimes mental health problems can have an upside, for example this post suggested that anxiety has benefits. Remember too that most people with a mental disorder are happy If you want to be happier than you are, this study suggested that frequent, mundane positive activities will make you happier, rather than rare, profound events.
Post compiled by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.