Website Lets Us Examine Our Automatic or Unconscious Associations About Mental Illness

December 12, 2011 — Nearly half of all people in the United States will experience a mental illness at some point during their lives, yet talking about mental illness remains taboo for many. A new website, Project Implicit Mental Health, allows visitors to examine and gain insight into their associations about mental health topics that may exist outside their conscious awareness or conscious control.

Visitors can discover their automatic associations relating to anxiety, depression, alcohol, eating disorders and persons with mental illness, using tasks such as the Implicit Association Test. The website is a collaboration among researchers at the University of Virginia, Harvard University and University of Washington.
 
The website provides users with opportunities to try one or more measures of automatic associations relevant to mental health. The site then gives feedback on what each measure reveals. The site is free, has no advertising, and each measure can be completed in less than 10 minutes. The measures do not diagnose a mental health difficulty and the site does not offer therapy, but does offer links to many resources for seeking mental health help. Project psychologists use data from the tests, which does not identify participants, for research into mental illness associations.

Automatic associations are evaluations that occur rapidly and are very difficult to consciously control. These associations can differ from our slower, more intentional evaluations either because we do not have access to the automatic associations in memory, so cannot consciously reflect on them, or because we may not be comfortable sharing these associations, which can sometimes feel embarrassing or socially unacceptable. 

Substantial research evidence already links change in automatic associations to how much somebody will improve in treatment for anxiety disorders, and automatic associations can even help identify individuals at risk for alcohol problems and suicidal behavior.

Researchers use the Implicit Association Test to assess mental associations that may be different than what people know or say about themselves. Research suggests that people sometimes have implicit belief systems that contradict their declared beliefs. These implicit beliefs can affect actions, such as how they view people with mental illnesses, including themselves.
 
"People may not always be able to tell us about their mental health difficulties, either because they lack insight into the problem or do not feel comfortable reporting such sensitive information," said Bethany Teachman, principal investigator of the Project Implicit Mental Health site and an associate professor of psychology in U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences. "With this site we may improve our ability to identify and help people who are suffering by including automatic measures of mental illness to complement what people are willing and able to report."

The site uses the latest psychological science to raise awareness about the role of automatic associations in mental health issues. Many forms of mental illness are characterized by ways of responding that seem to happen very rapidly and can feel uncontrollable. Thus, learning about automatic associations (which capture fast and relatively uncontrollable ways of processing information) may help researchers better understand why mental illnesses develop, what maintains them, and how to best reduce the suffering associated with mental illness.

"We want to share some of the new tools that the science of clinical psychology has to offer, and we are hopeful that this website will help raise awareness about, and reduce, the stigma associated with mental illness and its treatment," said Matthew Nock, a co-director of Project Implicit Mental Health and professor of psychology at Harvard University. "Learning about one's own automatic associations may help reduce the tendency for people to hold negative attitudes toward mentally ill individuals – such as exaggerated beliefs that mentally ill people are dangerous or untreatable."  

Project Implicit Mental Health is the newest site for Project Implicit, an international collaboration of researchers investigating thoughts and feelings that occur outside of awareness or control. Visitors to the Project Implicit websites have now completed more than 13 million tests of automatic associations since it was launched in 1998.

"Mental health is the cutting edge for research with automatic measures," said Brian Nosek, director of Project Implicit and a U.Va. associate professor of psychology. "Many mental health challenges occur despite the person's intentions and efforts to think, feel or behave otherwise. Automatic measures offer an opportunity to investigate how unintended thought processes contribute to dysfunctional behavior."


Media Contact

Fariss Samarrai

University News Associate Office of University Communications