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School & Program Updates

School & Program Updates

UNC Research and Service Show That Treating Depression Leads to Improved Quality of Life

The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report emerging evidence associates positive mental health with improved health outcomes. Yet The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that only about 17 percent of U.S. adults are considered to be in a state of optimal mental health.

Among other mental health research and programs sponsored by the Gillings School of Global Public Health, one scaled for the University and one national study are described here.

Mr. Nelson Pace, doctoral student in epidemiology at the Gillings School, is one of three founders of Stigma-Free Carolina, a University campaign aimed at reducing stigma toward mental health concerns and treatment. “By accurately defining mental health, educating the community, and dispelling negative or false beliefs about mental health and its treatment,” organization leaders say, “we can help everyone be their best selves and reach their full potential.”

Stigma-Free Carolina, initially conceived by members of UNC’s Royster Society of Fellows, aims to lessen stigma associated with mental health illness and treatment and to help students receive mental health treatment that will help them feel whole and happy. Group leaders were motivated by a 2010 survey reporting that 19 percent of UNC students felt like receiving mental health treatment would be, for them, a sign of personal failure, and 54.4 percent agreed with the statement, “Most people would think less of someone who has received mental health treatment.”

During the week of October 6, the group sponsored several events, including a panel discussion about redefining mental health, an interactive theatre workshop focused on mental health issues and a “Mental Health 101” seminar on treatment and available resources for those with mental health concerns.

On a wider scale, Dr. Brian Pence, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Gillings School, and Ms. Angela Bengtson, epidemiology doctoral student, examined ways to decrease depression and improve quality of life for HIV-positive adults.

Antiretroviral treatment has transformed HIV from a death sentence to a chronic condition, enabling infected adults to pay more attention to their quality of life. Yet quality of life is affected strongly by depression, which plagues HIV-infected adults at a higher rate than the general population.

Ms. Bengtson, Dr. Pence and colleagues found that treating depression effectively improves quality of life in a number of areas for HIV-infected individuals.

“It is pretty well understood that depression is associated with worse quality of life,” Ms. Bengtson said. “But this is some of the first evidence about the extent to which improving depression has the potential to improve quality of life for patients with HIV infection.”

Living with HIV carries considerable physical and emotional burdens. Physical symptoms, especially extreme fatigue, take their toll, and HIV continues to bear a stigma that can lead to loss of social support among infected adults. When depression joins the mix, which it does in 20 to 30 percent of infected adults, it can decrease adherence to taking antiretroviral drugs, which can start a downward spiral leading to reduced quality of life and worse health outcomes.

The study, “Improvements in depression and changes in quality of life among HIV-infected adults,” was published online August 8 in the journal AIDS Care.