The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Can An Online Graduate Social Work Psychopathology Course Change Conceptions of “Mental Illness” and Promote a Critical Approach to Mental Health Practice?

Saturday, January 18, 2014
HBG Convention Center, Bridge Hall Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Sara E. Groff, MSW, Research Assistant, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Tomi Gomory, PhD, Associate Professor, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Background and Purpose: Dramatic changes have occurred recently regarding mental health research. Literature now questions the conventional medical model of “mental illness,” the reliability and validity of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the efficacy of psychiatric drugs, and coercion as a valid treatment. We sought information about what students knew about the current science regarding mental health prior to exposure to an online psychopathology class and how the class impacted their knowledge and critical thinking skills.

Methods:  The project collected data from a college of social work from a state university located in the Southeastern United States (8 semesters of classes and 156 MSW students). Using semi- structured pre and post questions, content analysis, descriptive statistics, and detailed demographics available from university databases, the research evaluated how students conceptualized “mental illness,” elements of the class impacting knowledge development, and elements enhancing student critical thinking. The delivered class package consisted of pedagogical and evaluation mechanisms allowing for student diversity in learning styles, including: podcast lectures by the professor, student analysis and critique of the academic literature through structured essays; a discussion board for student engagement in educational dialogue with each other and to think critically; an exam covering the DSM diagnostic criteria sets using exact choice multiple choice questions; assigned readings (the DSM and conventional and critical peer reviewed journal articles); diagnostic case vignettes to help students prepare for professional mental health practice; and finally, a critical diagnostic review paper where students evaluated the state of the current science regarding their selected disorder criteria’s reliability and validity.

Results:  After content analysis, four models of “mental illness” emerged: 1) medical; 2) problems in living; 3) deviance/labeling/social construction; and 4) biopsychosocial. Responses were coded and put into these non-discrete categories. Following analysis we found that students defined “mental illness” using several models; answers were not limited to only one model – they could be coded and put in more than one. At baseline the four models ranked 1) biopsychosocial (48%), 2) medical (39%), 3) deviance/labeling/social construction (13%), and 4) problems in living (7%). After the course, 1) biopsychosocial, (44%); 2) problems in living (36%), 3) deviance/labeling/social construction (36%), and 4) medical model (4%).

The students identified scientific articles, (53%), podcast critique of the DSM (35%), emphasis on critical thinking (29%) and the use of the discussion board (22%) as the most important class elements that led to “out of the box” thinking.

 Implications:  The research suggest that an online psychopathology course can offer the broad range of available scientific knowledge to masters level graduate students that will help them think critically about the conventional assumptions regarding mental health issues. It also suggests that such a course can help improve student critical thinking and research faculties through several specific class elements.

The implication for social work education is that a testable and replicable model of an online class on psychopathology can be provided and implemented for improving the empirical knowledge and professional skills in mental health practice of MSW students.