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 DHS News April 2013   

Anti-Stigma Committee

Mike Gruber, System Transformation Coordinator, and William Boyce, Recovery Specialist, have a couple of messages not everyone wants to hear.  The two are Systems Transformation Specialists in the DHS Office of Behavioral Health and one of their important tasks is to get out the word about stigmas and mental illness.

 Mike can tick off the research:

  • 1 in 5 children/adolescents may have a diagnosable mental disorder.
  • About two-thirds of young people with mental health problems do not get the help they need.
  • As many as 44% of high schoolers with mental health problems will drop out of school.
  • Adults with mental illness die, on average, 25 years earlier than those without the diagnosis because they neglect their physical health. They believe they have nothing to look forward to.

For about a year, they have been working on a project to help reduce the stigma experienced by people with mental illness. Their hope is that people who have mental illness may feel encouraged to seek the help they need, perhaps ultimately reducing the dismaying statistics Mike quotes.

“Stigma is one of the biggest obstacles to recovery because of the shame and embarrassment people who have mental illness feel,” he said.

The Anti-Stigma Committee includes representatives from the Allegheny County Coalition for Recovery, the Community Support Program and the Employment Transformation Committee. Around a dozen people have been attending once-a-month planning meetings.

The project is two-pronged. One targets children and the other, churches in the county’s African-American community. Both are attempting to educate, promote recovery and link to resources.

Mike explained the effort in the African-American community. He said they comprise the largest minority group in the county, and also are disproportionately represented among people seeking mental health services when they do seek help.  

Mike said the committee hopes to implement a form of a national program called “Lets” – which stands for Let’s Erase the Stigma -- programs in high schools, churches and possibly after-school programs.

 “For kids, one of the things you see in schools is that they are subject to bullying because of their differences,” Mike said

He said committee members participated in Pittsburgh roundtables as part of social studies classes at Brashear to measure interest in Lets and the anti-stigma concept. The teens were interested in the subject. The roundtable facilitator later told Mike that students opened up about some mental health issues after the session.

Having children involved in anti-stigma awareness is important.

“We want to try to catch them before they develop fixed opinions about people with mental illness that are inaccurate,” Mike said.

The goal of the children’s project is to decrease “social distance” – isolating a person with mental illness from their peers.  A survey would evaluate social distance with such questions as “I would be comfortable with someone with mental illness next to me in class” or “I would invite someone with mental illness to my home,” Mike said.

Research about Lets clubs suggest that they help decrease social distance.

“[Club members] come to see kids with mental illness as just other kids,” Mike said.

William’s committee is working to develop a resource packet for African American churches.  Churches, which are seen as the backbone of many black communities, can be both the means by which effective outreach can be achieved and places where biases about mental health can be mediated.  The packet will be designed to help start discussion about mental illness as well as provide information about how and where to get help.

Some clergy have misconceptions or misunderstandings about mental illness.

 “Is it a spiritual issue or a chemical imbalance?” he said of the kinds of questions that often arise when someone is struggling with a mental health issue.

Mike said he attended a workshop put on by the United Methodists on mental health. A leader asked attendees who had received training in mental health issues to put up their hand.

No one did, he said.

“Most clergy say that in dealing with mental health issues, they don’t have the resources or training,” he said.

Mike said the Anti-Stigma committee is close to formulating a proposal that will be presented to administrators for consideration.

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