SLOwing the stigma of mental illness

SLO the Stigma unveiled its new mental health campaign May 4 by unveiling the face of a man who represents the stigma of mental illness.

Courtesy photo

SLO the Stigma, funded by the Mental Health Services Act, was started in early 2010 in collaboration with Transitions Mental Health Association (TMHA) and 20/20 Creative Group. Along with billboards and advertising, the SLO the Stigma campaign also created a documentary telling the story of San Luis Obispo county locals who suffer from mental illness. According to the documentary, more than 50,000 San Luis Obispo County residents can suffer from depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, showing a need for those residents to know they can seek help.

Jill Bolster-White, the executive director of TMHA and one of those who helped bring the campaign to life from the beginning, said SLO the Stigma was started to create awareness for mental illness and reduce the stigma associated with it by giving a local, tangible face to mental illness sufferers.

“One of the reasons we wanted to do it is that we found so often we would talk about our programs and people would be really mystified about what mental illness is, and have it mixed up with developmental disabilities or multiple personality disorder, all these sort of more strange seeming types of things or scary types of things,” Bolster-White said. “That combined with some situations where we were trying to relocate a program or site a program in a neighborhood and neighbors would come out and just say, ‘Well, we have children who live in this neighborhood, we can’t have a mental health program.’”

Cami Rouse, a family advocate for TMHA, said when the campaign initially started, it had a mysterious appeal. The 2010 part of the campaign had a documentary in which a man appeared in the dark, and urged people to visit the SLO the Stigma website. Rouse said the mysterious quality helped pique people’s interest in the campaign, though now that the stigma has been revealed, she said more sufferers of mental illness are seeking help.

“We use it as a tool for people who are experiencing the symptoms of mental illness for the first time to identify with someone, and for family members to say, ‘Oh look, other people are dealing with this too, and there’s help available,’” Rouse said. “It’s been a stigma reduction campaign, but it’s also been a tool with engaging people into treatment.”

Shannon McOuat, the marketing and outreach coordinator of TMHA, said she has experienced firsthand the impact of the campaign during outreach events. McOuat said a particular incident that stood out in her mind was during a Pride event when a young man recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder told her he was able to “come out of the closet” of mental illness because of the campaign.

Though SLO the Stigma has been having an effect on the community, the funding from the Mental Health Services Act will end in June 2011.
The Mental Health Services Act allows funding to mental health programs all across California, separating the money for each county by population and amount of services offered. Yet, though the funding will no longer be available, McOuat said the campaign website will continue to be available as a resource for those with mental illness.

“We are definitely dedicated to keep this going,” McOuat said. “We are going to continue to go out into the community and show SLO the Stigma and talk about SLO the Stigma, and wear our T-shirts with pride. What happens is this pool of money has dried up, so that means there won’t be anymore advertising or billboards unless we get a grant dedicated to it or somebody decides to donate to show support and keep it running.”

McOuat also said she hoped with the new phase of the campaign, more college students will talk about mental illness and be educated on it. Rouse also said TMHA participates in many outreach programs which let college students know that TMHA is a local mental illness resource they have access to along with Cal Poly’s counseling services.

“We are incredibly dedicated to working with the college community,” Rouse said. “We are just excited for the new video to be a possible outreach for the college and high school populations.”

This outreach to Cal Poly also has an important impact on suicide prevention. Suicide is the second leading cause of death on college campuses, and the suicide rate in San Luis Obispo County is higher than the national average, Rouse said. Also, one in five college age people have a mental illness. Rouse said she recognized the difficulties and pressure of being in college, and said she hoped college students know they can get help if needed.

Rouse said the success of SLO the Stigma, which has increased with the second phase of the campaign, comes from local involvement, making mental illness more tangible.

“SLO the Stigma is so personal because the way that you change people’s minds is you change their hearts,” Rouse said. “If somebody can really personalize this issue, it changes their heart, which ultimately changes their mind.”