Michael Gallagher
Vail, CO, Colorado

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February 21, 2013
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Vail Valley Voices: Stigma persists with mental illness

"I have been following the stigma issue for a while now, and in reading and writing about it, I find that we spend a lot of time with public awareness, but then I headed toward the issue of how we deal with it on our end as clients. We have the hardest task on our end of learning and knowing how to deal with it."

I posed this statement to some clients on stigma sites on Facebook. Surprisingly, I got next to no response. Maybe it's not surprising.

Another not so surprising fact is that attitudes in America toward people with mental illness have not changed in spite of numerous campaigns to promote public awareness to reduce stigma throughout the country.

Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald wrote a great article for the Huffington Post last May entitled, "Glenn Close: Let's End the Stigma Around Mental Illness Now." It's at www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-patricia-fitzgerald/glenn-close-mental-healthstigma_b_1557015.html?ref=healthy-living

In 2010, Indiana University and Columbia University conducted a joint study on mental health stigma. The level of stigma, and it is high, remains the same.

Roughly half of the people that they surveyed stated they had some sort of prejudice toward mentally ill people. According to Indiana University sociologist Bernice Pescosolido, "Prejudice and discrimination in the U.S. aren't moving. In fact, in some cases, it may be increasing. It's time to stand back and rethink our approach" (http://newsinfo.iu.edu/news/page/normal/15444.html).

With all the campaigns to fight stigma, I am not seeing national campaigns to help clients cope with the overwhelming stigma they face. The best support I have seen is among peer-sponsored (vs. nonprofit) Facebook sites, where clients reach out to one another, and sometimes friends and others chime in. It's online peer-support, and it helps and is needed.

So how do we plan for mental health clients to deal with stigma? Should programs focus more on helping clients, given that the public's view remains roughly the same?

I do not see or hear enough about treating people for being on the receiving end of stigma. Self-esteem is a big issue for many mental health clients, and this is where a tie-in can be made.

Jeannie Ritter, former Colorado first lady, made mental health her official cause during Gov. Bill Ritter's term. She continues her work as mental health ambassador for Mental Health Center of Denver. She attended the 28th annual Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy.

Ritter wrote about it in the Mental Health Center of Denver blog: "Former U.S. first lady and Carter Center co-founder Rosalynn Carter brought together more than 200 mental health leaders, stakeholders and providers to discuss steps communities can take to build social inclusion of people living with mental illnesses."

According to Carter, "Although we know much more about mental illnesses and how to treat them than ever before, stigma against these disorders remains. One of the best ways to fight stigma and discrimination in the long run is to take action and develop public policies that provide communities with the foundations and tools to include and support people living with mental illnesses" (http://mhcd.org/blog/thoughts-mental-illness-and-stigma).

There is hope that public awareness can reduce stigma, but time will tell.

Ritter added, "What really struck me about the conference as an animated advocate was the power in the consumer voice. We have not incorporated that voice in much of our advocacy. When we take the time to listen, we have a greater understanding of what we have to do. There is still too much myth, too much social isolation. The media has a responsibility to put a real face on people, families, communities. We can become aware of the 'othering' of people with mental illness, and instead stories of people thriving can dispel the stereotypes."

Michael Gallagher was a longtime resident of Eagle County who now lives in Denver. This is his fifth column on mental health for the Vail Daily.


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The VailDaily Updated Feb 21, 2013 09:16AM Published Feb 21, 2013 09:13AM Copyright 2013 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.