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Dal med student’s social media project improves mental health care

- March 3, 2016

Tara Riddell, a third year medical student and Beyond the Body founder.
Tara Riddell, a third year medical student and Beyond the Body founder.

In her second year of medical school, Tara Riddell decided to take her interest in psychiatry online to improve education around mental health. Originally part of a class project, Riddell’s idea has grown into a full social media presence on Facebook and Twitter, called Beyond the Body.

The project acts as a hub for discussion on topics around mental health. It also helps to address fear and stigma health professionals and trainees may have of psychiatric patients by increasing knowledge and insight of mental illness.

At its core, Riddell says the project is all about building understanding and empathy.

Education for better patient care

Mental illness continues to be a growing concern and topic of interest worldwide: One-in-five individuals are affected by mental illness, and it’s a leading cause of disability and major contributor of suicide. But many people still go undiagnosed and untreated.

Riddell says that a considerable barrier to care is related to stigma, something that she recognizes even within the medical community.

“Medical students may possess stigmatizing attitudes and beliefs about mental illness—that can reduce their ability to identify mental health concerns in patients,” she says. “Less understanding can lead to poor illness management and support for these individuals.”

The project is now into its third year of operation and has a number of medical students contributing to it. It’s been promoted by the Canadian Federation of Medical Students and received second place at the Canadian Psychiatric Association’s annual conference poster presentation in Vancouver last October.

A focus on empathy

The interest — and value, as Riddell sees it — is that it increases empathy in health professionals.

“That’s what’s going to improve patient care,” says Riddell. “They’ll be more skilled and adept at recognizing mental illness and emotional stress,” says Riddell.

“By helping others to better understand and appreciate patients, the stigma and fear that patients often anticipate will decrease and they’ll be more comfortable seeking help and receiving care.”

Riddell says insight is key to improving patient outcomes. It improves the ability for health care provides to interact, assess, and diagnose patients; it opens up the possibility for treatment to start earlier; and the community supports available to those patients can be identified to them.

“Ultimately, a good, therapeutic physician-patient relationship is one that is based on trust and respect. If Beyond The Body can help to increase provider understanding, it may also help to foster our empathy and regard for those with mental illness, leading to improved care and a more positive and valuable experience for the patient.”

The Beyond the Body team is keen to bring more mental health awareness to campus and advocate for medical student, resident and physician mental wellbeing. They’re in the process of generating ideas and events to educate and support these groups.

“It’s equally important for health professionals to be aware of and enhance their own mental health. We can only care for patients as well as we care for ourselves.”

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