January 6, 2010

A recent study at the University of Kentucky showed its Cooperative Extension agents effectively communicate health-related information to the public.

The study, the Mental Health in Aging Initiative, looked at extension agents' abilities to quickly spread information to the public about mental health in aging using various forms of social marketing compared to the effectiveness of the social marketing forms when used alone.

Faika Zanjani, assistant professor at UK's Graduate Center for Gerontology, and Debbie Murray, associate director of UK's Health Education through Extension Leadership, were the lead researchers in the two-year study funded by a grant from the U. S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Health and Safety Education Program.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 27 percent of Kentuckians report poor mental health. Kentucky has one of the highest rates in the nation of frequent mental distress of its residents, but one of the lowest rates of diagnosis of poor mental health.

"We know one of the issues is there's not enough care available to treat mental health disorders," Zanjani said. "Many times the symptoms of mental health problems are not recognized or undermined by individuals, their families and friends."

Murray said many times people don't want to acknowledge mental health problems because of the stigmas attached to mental health issues. 

"In this study, we tried to eliminate those stigmas and put a more positive spin on mental health," she said. "We concentrated on building the community's capacity to recognize problems."

Family and consumer sciences extension agents in 11 northeastern Kentucky counties volunteered to participate in the study. They recruited community members to participate in focus forums about mental healthiness and taught Extension Homemakers and other community members ways to recognize good mental healthiness and to assist those in the aging population who may be mentally struggling.

Agents were able to utilize many forms of social marketing, including radio and television advertising, newspaper columns and calendars, to quickly disseminate messages about mental healthiness. They shared their knowledge with civic groups, senior citizens, faith-based organizations and the general public.

"One of the major points we made in the lessons and materials was that most people will not have mental health issues as they age, and that was a relief to some. It was a good opportunity to reinforce a positive aspect of mental health," said Martha Perkins, Bath County family and consumer sciences agent who was an agent in Rowan County during the study. "We also educated them about mental health issues so they would know the signs to look for in family members and themselves."

Residents of 29 additional Eastern and Central Kentucky counties received only the television marketing campaign related to mental healthiness in aging and those in 27 Western Kentucky counties received no exposure from the social marketing campaign and served as control counties for the study.

Between late February and April, a random telephone survey was conducted across all three areas to test the campaign's effectiveness. Survey results showed residents of the 11 Eastern Kentucky counties reported being better able to assist those with mental health issues than in the other two areas. They also better understood the risks of consuming alcohol and medications. However, they had poorer recognition of drinking problems in elder adults.

Peggy Powell, a Montgomery County family and consumer sciences agent said the study was a success in promoting mental health awareness in her county. She said it gave many individuals in her community a forum to openly discuss this little talked about issue.

"It increased community dialogue on mental health issues and helped identify the needs of our communities," she said. "It also educated people on the variety of existing mental health resources in our communities."

With results from this study, Murray, Zanjani and family and consumer sciences agents have developed a curriculum about mental healthiness. It will be piloted in a rural area of the state this year.

Murray and some of the agents have given presentations about the study's results at the Preister National Health Conference, Kentucky Rural Health Association's annual meeting and at the UK School of Human Environmental Sciences' All-School Conference. Zanjani presented the results at the national meeting of the Gerontological Society of America.