Communication and activism: Keys to fighting mental health stigma

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By Kyle Brutman

Before the start of this spring semester, a peer-to-peer mental health support program was not available to students on Georgetown University’s campus.

If a student had an issue that he or she wanted work out with a mental health specialist, that help would have to be reached through Georgetown’s student wellness center, a place that is bound to have existing appointments booked for days or even weeks.

But thanks in large part to Ben Johnson and Ken Nunnekamp, the university now has Project Lighthouse, an online and anonymous support service by students, for students.

Project Lighthouse, which is working together with Georgetown’s Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS), will feature Peer Supporters, who are trained to listen and consult students who are in need of support. Issues can range from class-related stress to thoughts of self harm, and anything in between.

Johnson says that he hopes the program will break the mental health access barrier that some students on his school’s campus have found frustrating, while also filling the gap between just talking with friends and participating in a formal counseling service.

“It is hard to overstate the potential for harm-reduction that can be enacted by students speaking out about their difficulties,” Johnson says.

Student initiatives such as the one Johnson helped start is one of the reasons why the fight against mental health stigma has been on the rise in recent years, according to multiple studies.

In a 2012 survey produced by the National Alliance on Mental Health called College Students Speak, 36 percent of participants–the largest number among listed categories–said stigma was the biggest barrier in terms of accessing mental health services and supports. The survey also indicated that stigma was a top-five reason that 57 percent of participants did not access on-campus accommodations.

However, those numbers do not reflect those released by Mental Health Weekly last month.

The publication reported that college-aged adults are not as concerned about mental health stigma as has been the case in past years.  

According to the report, which credits Harris Poll for providing the findings, 60 percent of college-aged adults (aged 18-25) view the act of reaching out for mental professional help as a sign of strength.

Dr. Anne Marie Albano, an adolescent psychologist and Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) member, said in Mental Health Weekly that technologies such as social media and the Internet are helping college-aged people breaking down mental health barriers.

While this is just one statistic, Lauren Abdill, the communications coordinator at Active Minds, says that the upward trend of openness is directly related to the attitudes and behaviors of the current college-aged generation.

Active Minds is a nonprofit organization that specializes in empowering college students to speak to others about mental health for the sake of education on the topic. The entity is meant to work as a middleman for college students and the mental health community, providing resources and information to those who are in need of mental health assistance.

Abdill also noted that the generation of current college students are more understanding of mental health issues than any of the older generations, meaning that the any distress that previously came with disclosing a mental issue is likely a non-factor among most current 18- to 25-year-olds.

“Sexuality isn’t as taboo for this generation,” Abdill says. “Everyone knows someone who’s gay and, similarly, everyone knows someone who’s suffered from a mental illness.”

Much of the trend toward openness has been brought about with both entertainment and media presences that are active in fighting mental health stigma.

Brandon Marshall, a wide receiver for the NFL team the New York Jets who suffered from borderline personality disorder, has established Project Borderline, a nonprofit organization that aims to raise BPD awareness and get people with BPD in contact with helpful resources.

Carrie Mathison, the star character on the award-winning television show “Homeland,” has been able to provide an accurate portrayal of what it means to have bipolar disorder. At the same time, she shows that she can rise to the top of the CIA despite the realities associated with bipolar disorder–medications, stressors and other negative aspects of dealing with the disorder as part of her character on the show.

Dr. Alfiee Breland-Noble, a professor and researcher at Georgetown University’s Department of Psychiatry, says that seeing figures in the public eye acknowledging their mental issues has helped make it easier for people to talk about their own issues on a micro level.

She says that when she was in college, there wasn’t nearly as much of an accurate portrayal of mental health as there is now. Mental health was seen as a dichotomy with no in-between, and there was a fear that came with even the mere discussion of mental disabilities.

“It was either you’re well, or you’re just like, walking down the street talking to yourself,” Ireland-Noble says.

People also thought that there were more important things to be concerned with than dealing with emotional wellness. That has since changed, as the Harris Poll reported that 87 percent of college-aged participants felt that mental health was as equally important as physical health. Ten percent view mental health as more important than physical health, leaving just 3 percent of college-aged participants who felt that physical health was more or equally as important as mental health.

The proliferation of campus-based organizations such as Project Lighthouse and Active Minds, which has instructors on over 400 U.S. campuses, has also served as a significant factor in fighting mental health stigma.

According to the Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors, 47 percent of campus-based counseling centers in 2014 teamed up with student-run mental health organizations.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness runs one of the largest movements in getting college students to talk about mental health: NAMI on Campus.

NAMI’s goal is to raise mental health stigma awareness and to educate students through fairs, candlelight vigils, presentations and guest speakers, among other events.

Any person can start a NAMI branch on his or her campus if one has not yet been established. On the organization’s website, one can fill out an interest form to help bring NAMI on campus to his or her college or university.

Mental illness acknowledgement and the spread of student-led mental health facilities are common factors that often lead to less stigma on college campuses.

“Those are the things that contribute to whenever we see lessened stigma or reductions in stigma among our young people in college,” Breland-Noble says.

Although all of these advancements have made a significant difference in how people see mental health, it is still not perfect. Stereotypes in regard to mental illness remain alive on a partial level with news media, such as in the cases of mass shooters and even veterans of the armed forces who must deal with issues such as PTSD. Despite these stereotypes, the fight against mental health stigma on college campuses has never been better. According to the Healthy Minds Study, 67 percent of US college students with mental health issues in 2011 reach out to their friends for help before consulting a professional in the field.

Like in most relationships, communication is perhaps the most important aspect when it comes to combating the mental health stigma.

Johnson points out that if a person hides the fact that they have a mental illness out of fear, it will only deepen the hole of depression and anxiety. But organizations such as Project Lighthouse, Active Minds, NAMI and other student-run programs are making it easier for college students to feel comfortable opening up about mental illness.

“Fighting stigma is all about having a conversation,” Abdill says.

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