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Why Research Matters to Mental Health Care
Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Tue, Nov 5th 2013
I currently have the pleasure of teaching a research course to undergraduate students majoring in human services and criminal justice. In addition to this being a pleasure, it's also a challenge. It's not the complexity of the material that makes it challenging, but rather the necessity to make the material interesting, non-threatening, and relevant to my students.
You see, research gets a bad rap. Unless you're of the rare bunch who wants to conduct social science research in a university setting, you probably think that research is about as relevant to your future employment as nuclear fission. This is especially true among students of the social sciences who plan on working in a direct service capacity as counselors, social workers, or parole officers. Why in the world should these students have to take a research course?
Because research matters. It matters whether or not these students ever plan on conducting an experiment in their career. It matters because part of being a good practitioner is being a good consumer of research - that is, those who help others should know what the research says about which interventions actually work. If we don't rely on research to inform our practice, we are doing a disservice to those who depend on us for help.
Consider these two examples of how research has mattered in the realm of mental health care over time:
- Trepanning (also known as trephining) - In the 17th century, physicians believed that mental illness could be cured by drilling a hole in the person's skull to release the affliction from the brain. As you can imagine, many people died from this barbaric procedure. Fortunately, by the 18th century, most physicians had stopped the practice of trepanning due to new knowledge (yes, through research) indicating that there was no scientific basis for this procedure.
- Chemical restraints in nursing homes - One of my first jobs was in a nursing home, where I worked as a nurse's aide during the summers between my years in college. At that time (in the late 1980s), there were few regulations regarding how to treat mental illness and behavioral issues among nursing home residents. I saw countless residents subjected to high doses of psychotropic drugs in order to "chemically restrain" them from exhibiting troublesome behavior. Thankfully, a good deal of social science research since then revealed that non-drug, behavioral interventions worked just as well, if not better, than psychotropic drugs did - without the side effects and with a much higher quality of life.
Where would we be without research? In the dark ages, most likely. Research matters to mental health care because it shows us what works and what doesn't as well as what is safe and what is potentially (or clearly) dangerous. Many of the more effective treatments being used in mental health centers today have research to thank for determining that they showed promise.
Can you think of ways that your mental health care has been affected by research? Has your provider changed approaches or treatments because research revealed that there may be a better way?