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In the month of May, Mental Health Month is observed in the United States to raise awareness and educate the public on mental health. Mental illness remains shrouded in stigma, yet approximately one in five American adults (roughly 43.8 million people) are affected by mental health conditions. Untreated mental health conditions can result in consequences such as suicide, homelessness, and incarceration. Substance use and mental health often go hand in hand, with more than two million adults experiencing a substance use disorder also experiencing a co-occurring mental illness.

This winter, these issues were discussed in great detail during the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) 14th Annual Prevention Day, sponsored by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA). Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, SAMHSA’s Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use, spoke about the opioid epidemic, illicit drug use, and the vital role that prevention researchers play in addressing key substance use and mental health issues.

Our work at Fors Marsh Group (FMG) reflects research on both of these important health topics. We have conducted tracking studies with military recruiters examining multiple indicators associated with suicidal behavior—including interpersonal conflict, workplace and life satisfaction, depressive symptoms, and substance use behavior—and used this information to investigate the ways in which policies can be amended to improve recruiters’ quality of life.

FMG’s research in alcohol and tobacco prevention has helped develop targeted interventions to communicate about the risks associated with substance use disorders, using audience segmentation to create messaging platforms based on alcohol consumption, and refining message strategies aimed at reducing and preventing youth tobacco use.

I’ve also explored this topic in my graduate school research where I collected survey data on 300 individuals regarding their mental health diagnoses, and identified barriers to and facilitating factors for disclosing their mental health condition. Barriers included stigma and misperceptions of mental health disorders, and facilitators included increased time since diagnosis and the relationship to the person with whom they were sharing the diagnosis.

The causal link between these two health issues remains unknown—it is possible that mental illness drives people to self-medicate with substances, and also plausible that substance abuse exacerbates and potentially uncovers mental illness. As research continues to emerge about the connection between mental health and substance use, social scientists will have the capability to design more sophisticated prevention and intervention efforts.

And, as we continue to gain insight about the relationship between these two factors, FMG remains committed to advancing the social scientific investigation of the most effective and innovative ways to reduce substance abuse and improve mental health outcomes.

About the author

Amanda Carpenter, Ph.D.

Amanda Carpenter, Ph.D.

Dr. Amanda Carpenter has over eight years of experience conducting health communication research in academic, private, and government settings. During her tenure at Fors Marsh Group (FMG), Dr. Carpenter has led projects for a variety of clients including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Tobacco Products (CTP), the FDA Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS, the Department of Defense (DOD) Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), and the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC). She supported the FEMA brand tracking study, which examined insurance agents’ and homeowners’ perceptions of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), and the USCG communication audit, which thoroughly analyzed the various internal communication tools available to its members and resulted in a comprehensive internal communication strategy. Prior to her experience at FMG, Dr. Carpenter served as a research fellow at Rutgers University where she worked with a research team to develop a substance use prevention curriculum targeting rural youth. This curriculum was eventually adopted by D.A.R.E. America to include as its 10th grade curriculum. Additional academic experience includes leading several grant-funded projects focused on youth substance use prevention and cancer prevention. She has extensive experience conducting structural equation modeling, multi-level modeling, and longitudinal data analysis, and has attended workshops on all three of these data analytic techniques. Research areas of interest include health communication, stigmatized diseases and illnesses (e.g., mental health, HIV/AIDS), health interventions, and prevention efforts. Her research has been published in journals such as Journal of Communication, Health Communication, and Journal of Applied Communication Research.

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