Nancy Hanrahan, APNA Award for Excellence in MediaNancy Hanrahan, PhD, RN, FAAN
2014 Award for Excellence in Media


Of her latest research project, recipient of the APNA Award for Excellence in Media Nancy Hanrahan says, “Stigma is a profound barrier to healing from a mental health or substance use condition; and tackling mental health stigma is at the root of what we do.” The research, funded by the University of Pennsylvania Center for Public Health Initiatives, was based on the idea that  videography media could help people who live with mental illness create healing narratives that promote recovery. “Videos are ‘Selfies’,” says Hanrahan, “or visual narratives that promote healing.”

Hanrahan and her team worked with the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania (MHASP), which is a nonprofit corporation that creates opportunities for individuals and family members to effectively respond to the challenges of mental health conditions.  “We gave people with lived experiences of mental illness video cameras and asked them to make a film of their experience of recovery,” she explains. “Each participant got their own camera for a month. We checked in with them weekly to make sure that there were no technical issues; surprisingly, they had little problems using the cameras.” Explains Hanrahan, “We’re all experiencing a revolution in the way technology shapes our lives, from television, to videos to phones – access to technology is common.” So much of how we communicate is based on visuals. “I think using media technology can help people renegotiate their story of mental illness and recovery,” she says.

On an individual level, “We know that people create stories that give meaning to their experience.  Most stories about mental health or substance use conditions are negative. Videography generates healing narratives,” says Hanrahan. Refocusing narratives generates hope, she explains: “When a person receives a diagnosis of mental illness, it’s often a very negative experience, despite the fact that there recovery evidence is available. Hope is the underpinning of recovery. You CAN recover from a mental illness.” As her colleague Phyllis Solomon says, “Dr. Hanrahan is a champion of using the technology to demonstrate the positive aspects of persons living with severe mental illness and breaking down the old views of these individuals being their diagnosis.”

After the participants completed their filming, the research team met with each person to review their film and ensure approval for public showing. Each participant had authority to decide what could or could not be used. “We used video vignettes at the annual meeting of the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania (MHASP) with rave reviews. I swear there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience,” says Hanrahan. Film clips are also being used as tools in the wellness programs offered by MHASP. “Participants of these programs use the film clips as “boosters” when they need to be reminded about recovery,” says Hanrahan.   The films are also planned for use with advocacy campaigns.

Nancy Hanrahan with her Research Team
Hanrahan (2nd from right) with her Research Team

As an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, Hanrahan is working with students on this research. “Marissa Decesaris, an undergraduate nursing student and an APNA Board of Directors Student Scholar, was a principal player in this study,” says Hanrahan. “She is amazing.  Her work made this study happen.” In fact, Decesaris is one of the people who nominated Hanrahan for the award, saying “She...taught me numerous lessons about grant-writing, protocol development, protection of human research subjects, data collection, analysis, and dissemination.” Hanrahan sees involving students in her research as a way to get nursing students excited about caring for individuals with mental health and substance conditions. “I think research offers the platform for their understanding to grow,” she says.

The team is now working on research papers for publication. “We will propose modifications to the recovery assessment scale based on our findings,” says Hanrahan. They also plan to generate educational and advocacy products for broader dissemination. “There’s just an enormous amount of research opportunity that can be translated into better quality of care for individuals with mental health and substance use conditions,” says Hanrahan. “For example, we could design media approaches to be used in therapy. I see the future involving technology and media approaches as innovative therapeutic interventions.”

Hanrahan would like to especially thank her research team: Phyllis Solomon, Marisa Decesaris, Tony Krumbhaar, and the staff and members of the Mental Health Association of Northeastern Pennsylvania.