Mental Health Services Research Lab

Researcher - Dr. Stephen Saunders

The Research

The Mental Health Services Research Laboratory does research on the mental health services system. The lab focuses generally on two related phenomena. First, there is a high prevalence of mental health problems and mental illness in the U.S. Second, mental health services are highly effective—especially psychotherapy and counseling. But most persons with a mental health problem do not seek services. This is due to many issues, including inadequacy of resources, difficulty accessing resources, and person-specific variables such as shame and stigma.

As you can see from my CV, lab research over the years has focused on treatment seeking, treatment acceptance, and treatment outcomes. Recent research focuses on access and barriers to access. We are pursuing two main projects at present.

The Friendship Ministry Project

Inadequate access to mental health resources is especially problematic for populations in stressful environmental conditions, including poverty, systemic racism, and inadequate access to health care resources. Simultaneously, it is known that persons with mental health problems much prefer to obtain assistance from their church than from a professional.

The Friendship Ministry Project is a community-engaged project. Rather than dictate to community members what they should do, community-engaged projects carefully listens to concerns, strives to understand capabilities, and collaborates in order to offer an acceptable, feasible, enduring program or project.

The Friendship Ministry Project works with churches to develop an appropriate, church-specific, applicable, practical, effective and culturally-sensitive program to assist members with mental health problems. After meeting with the church leadership to evaluate the church’s specific needs and potentials, the specific program is developed utilizing the expertise of our lab. In general, the program entails identifying a cadre of layperson members who will be trained as Friendship Ministers. They are trained to determine a member’s needs and then to either (1) assist the person in obtaining appropriate, professional, mental health care, or (2) provide direct assistance in the form of problem-solving advice. The meetings are limited in number.

Begun in late 2021, a first cohort of laypersons has been trained. We are now establishing collaborative relationships with other churches in order to continue developing the Friendship Ministry.

Social Media and Stigma Towards Mental Health Problems

This project is based on the finding that stigmatizing attitudes, feelings and behaviors are major barriers to treatment for mental health problems. Previous research shows that social media usage (SMU) has a detrimental effect on emotional well-being, especially for youth and more especially for young women. This is likely related to several things. First, SMU “crowds out” time spent in actual interactions with other persons. Second, social appearance and social comparison are normal for youth, and SMU often entails seeing airbrushed, perfect, perfectly content, perfectly entertaining, happy people makes a person feel bad about oneself. Thus we hypothesize that SMU causes emotional distress because it creates a sense of both needing to be perfect and having the capacity to be perfect.

Second, while SMU may increase awareness and perhaps even understanding of mental health problems, we suspect that SMU will be related to an increase in stigmatization towards mental health problems. We hypothesize that social media glorifies problems, making them much less than they are. (A person who is genuinely depressed does not go online and brag about being depressed or having a good conversation with his therapist.) We are developing a survey to test these ideas.

If you are interested in learning more about the mental health services research lab, do not hesitate to reach out.