American Psychological Foundation

How do we help people with mental illness overcome stigma and other social stressors? With a $5,000 Violet and Cyril Franks Scholarship from APF in 2010, Luma Muhtadie examined the influence of stigma and social-evaluative stress on mental and physiological responses of people with bipolar I disorder.

Stigmatization — whether perceived from the outside or internalized — can make people with mental illness feel threatened when they believe that import ant aspects of their self-identity, such as intelligence, may be negatively evaluated by others. Muhtadie's research examined how this threat response to social-evaluative stress can manifest in cognitive, emotional and even physiological ways.

Muhtadie's research identified two major effects of social-evaluative stress: increases in negative emotion and a pattern of maladaptive cardiovascular responses, including decreased cardiac efficiency and increased vascular resistance. Muhtadie's study was the first to identify a distinctive cardiovascular response to this type of stress among people with bipolar disorder.

She also found that individuals with bipolar disorder showed greater increases in anxiety and frustration/irritation in response to socially meaningful stressors.

These findings suggest that researchers, clinicians and policymakers should pay more attention to the harmful effects of the stigma associated with mental illness.

Muhtadie says that the Violet and Cyril Franks Scholarship not only facilitated her work, but has had a profound impact on her career. "Being awarded the grant gave me a boost of confidence as well as a sense of accountability to complete the project and to do so well," she says.

She is continuing to pursue her research at the University of California, Berkeley.