Fewer than a third of people with mental health issues seek treatment in any one year, and this is often down to the stigma associated with receiving “help”. Little wonder that people “avoid therapy-related information to protect themselves from being associated with negative labels”. Into this mix come new findings, reported in Journal of Counseling Psychology, that self-affirmation (a focus on how people adapt to information or experiences that are threatening to their self-concept) online can help adults with mental health issues change their preconceptions about counselling and consider accessing psychological support.

The researchers, entering untrodden territory, are now investigating whether people completing a values-affirmation exercise report less negative emotion, and more willingness to seek help, after reading mental health information. After posting the study on MTurk (a crowdsourcing internet marketplace), Lannin, Vogel and Heath assign 92 participants to rank 7 values on a 1-7 scale, and then to reflect on the value most important to them, before presenting them with mental health information from the American Psychological Association’s (APA’s) Help Center website.

61% of these participants experience less negative emotion than the 94 participants with a no-affirmation condition, but they don’t feel less guilty or jittery. Equally, 64% anticipate more growth in counselling, and 68% are more inclined to seek counselling, although crucially there is no impact on self-stigma when it comes to seeking psychological help. All in all; “Compared with those who did no-affirmation, those affirming their personal values before reading mental health information […] specifically reported feeling less upset, irritable, hostile and scared”.

Overall, say the researchers, self-affirmation online can effectively form part of “comprehensive outreach efforts aimed at increasing help-seeking”. Examples of online exercises could be university webpages that offer treatment information for new students, or webpages providing mental health materials for employees or veterans and other at-risk populations. Lannin, Vogel and Heath inject a positive note when they say that exploring personal values in this way can help people achieve more meaningful lives “in line with their larger life goals”, as well as providing a response to the under-utilisation of counselling and other mental health services.

Lannin, D.G., Vogel, D.L., & Heath, P.J. (2017). Can reflecting on personal values online increase positive beliefs about counseling? Journal of Counseling Psychology, 64(3), 261-268. doi: 10.1037/cou0000201