Saturday, January 15, 2011
* noted as presenting author
Purpose: This study compares the subjective experience of stigma among college students taking psychiatric medication. Tragic events on high school and college campuses have heightened awareness and concern about the mental health needs of students (Voelker, 2007). When symptoms are ignored, the most serious consequences (e.g., suicide and homicide) often receive dramatic media attention. Less dramatic, but more common, negative outcomes of mental health issues deserve additional research and public attention such as the social consequences of academic struggle and dropping out. A report estimated that “86% of individuals who have a psychiatric disorder withdraw from college prior to completion of their degree” (Collins & Mowbray, 2005, p. 304). Many who drop out feel stigmatized by illness, do not seek treatment, and may therefore hide illness and medication use from peers, faculty, and college staff (Kadison & Digeronimo, 2004; Cook, 2007). Since college is among the social institutions involved in the transition of youth from home to independent living, campus services may be the first line of defense against (in prevention and treatment) the effects of stigma. Methods: 17 college students between the ages of 18-21 who currently meet DSM-IV criteria for a psychiatric illness and who were currently being prescribed a psychiatric medication participated in the study. The college students were interviewed using the Young Adult Subjective Experience of Medication Interview (YASEMI), adapted from the original AdultSEMI, which was designed to obtain narrative data about medication treatment from those diagnosed with schizophrenia (Jenkins et al., 2005). Data was analyzed qualitatively using Atlas.ti software, by conducting thematic analysis to code the responses from the YASEMI. The themes were then compared using the constant comparative method (Beoje, 2002). Results: The thematic analysis of college students revealed positive attitudes toward medications and services. In particular, the adolescents endorsed themes that demonstrated a strong motivation to managing their own illness, medication adherence and developing a solid sense of autonomy. However, the college students were reluctant to utilize classroom accommodations because they did not want to be perceived as different from peers. Conclusion: The findings demonstrate that college students experience minimal stigma from their mental illness diagnosis and use of psychiatric medication. The outcome of adolescent adherence to treatment portrayed a new image of mental illness to their peers in the college setting. The adolescents in this study were living examples of “breaking the stereotype” and “destigmatizing” the image of mental illness by attending college, taking control of their treatment, and living a meaningful life full of opportunities. However, one must be cautious about the interpretation of the findings. The findings of this sample may not generalize to young adults in the general population, as the 18-25 year olds in this study were high functioning. The experience of stigma may differ for those young adults that go on to vocational schools or directly to work after high school. Future research needs to examine the subjective experience of 18-25 year olds who also attend vocational schools, community colleges or are full-time employed.