Mental health and social work: Challenging the biomedical approach

group photo of the learning and self-development collaborative mental health study team
Assistant Professor Shannon Hughes (fourth from right) with the Learning and Self-Development Collaborative team studying alternatives to mental health medications for young adults.

Assistant Professor Shannon Hughes is leading a drug-free mental health care study to evaluate a new approach to mood-related distress. Funded by the Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health Care, it includes psychoeducation, peer support groups, counseling on nutrition and lifestyle, and recreation-based social networking.

Hughes sees a social justice issue in the business practices of the health care industry. “The question is, are we getting accurate information from pharmaceutical companies? Do we have informed consent when information for professionals and patients is biased?” Hughes said.

Balance of power affects patients and families

“Patients’ own experiences, voices, and perspectives have historically been minimized, neglected, and dismissed,” added Hughes, who has concerns about power, authority, and consent when, for example, adolescents are told they need to be on medication to manage their lives.

“The big social justice question is, who benefits?” said Hughes. “While the prevalence, severity, and chronicity of mental health problems has risen in recent decades, the pharmaceutical industry has reaped enormous profits from shaping prescribing practices in their favor.”

Social workers fill important role in mental health care

Social workers see clients, families, and children in multiple contexts. “Physicians sometimes have 15 minutes for a medication visit,” Hughes said. “Social workers can help ensure the safety of medications by identifying potential harms and advocating for clients, especially young clients, who may not have a voice in how medications are affecting them.”

“It may mean, for some people, not being on medication, and for others reducing medications,” said Hughes. “It can mean all kinds of things. The critical point is supporting people, versus deferring to a system and saying, ‘just take it as prescribed, just do what you’re told because you have an illness.’”

New approach to mood-related distress

Hughes’ project, the Learning and Self-Development Collaborative, will avoid the use of medical-psychiatric labels or medications for supporting young adults, ages 18-26, experiencing intense mood-related distress.

“Through this program, we want to open up possibilities for young people to form new language to understand who they are and to make sense of how they’re feeling,” said Hughes. “Our young people are not sick, broken, or mentally ill. They are having very real, very human experiences that we need to listen to and validate from the perspective that we are all in this together, learning how to be human.”

As principal investigator, Hughes is collaborating with psychiatrist Scott Shannon at The Wholeness Center in Fort Collins to test the 4-month program aimed at helping young adults understand and navigate their mental health challenges without psychiatric labels or medications. Hughes is currently recruiting for the next group, which is scheduled to start in late August.

The School of Social Work is part of the College of Health and Human Sciences.