October 03, 2004

Pilot Anti-Stigma Programs in Schools

In 2003, the President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health recommended (among many other things) a national initiative to reduce stigma against people with mental illness. In the report, President Bush identified stigma as one of the main barriers preventing people living with mental illness from getting the excellent treatment they deserve.

One of the recent results of these recommendations is the federal Elimination of Barriers initiative. Under this program, eight states will launch pilot anti-stigma campaigns in certain public schools.

In Massachussets, one of the participating states, the State Dept of Mental Health is overseeing the educational component of the campaign. Teachers and administrators at four high schools will receive intensive training sessions on mental illness.

When given a choice by government personnel at SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration) between initiating the campaigns in workplaces or in schools, the State Department chose to target school-age adolescents.

"Mental illness very often shows itself first in children and adolescents," says Lester Blumberg, chief of staff to State Mental Health Commissioner Elizabeth Childs. "Early intervention works. If you can recognize trouble early, you can stop it before it gets worse."

The federal Initiative program also includes a national advertising campaign (via television, radio, and print) dedicated to reducing stigma.

Whether simple public education can effectively reduce the high levels of fear and stigma that currently surround mental illness in society remains to be seen. Certainly it is one essential component (although the program described above might consider extending their educational components to the student body - the community in which adolescents with mental illness must interact every day - as well as to adult employees). However, spokespersons from the Treatment Advocacy Center and other related organizations have suggested that reducing the high-profile criminal and crisis situations that result from untreated mental illness is also key.

In an editorial response to the original Commission report, TAC president Dr. E. Fuller Torrey stated: "The most effective way to reduce stigma is not a public information campaign - it is to help people BEFORE they become a headline. Yet absent from the report are interventions for those crises that directly lead to headline-making tragedies. These tragedies won't go away by ignoring them; they will go away by treating the cause." (Source: Commission Report Offers Little for Severest Mental Illnesses - Treatment Adocacy Center Statement, July 23 2003).

Others, such as NAMI advocate Robert Lundin, say that those with mental illnesses have the most powerful stigma-busting effect by having positive connections and conversations with others in the larger community. "There is no more powerful way to change attitudes than to make positive contact with people with mental illnesses," Lundin says. (Source: Schizophrenia.com newsblog, June 29 2004).

Original Source Article: "Natick High to be part of mental illness program" (Oct 1 2004). Available at http://www.metrowestdailynews.com


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