A shared vision: Decreasing stigma and discrimination around mental illness

The shared vision

"Great minds think alike"—this certainly seems to be the case for the twin forces of The CMHC Foundation and the Peer Support staff at Connecticut Mental Health Center (CMHC). Both groups have identified a shared goal for their present and future work: reducing stigma and discrimination around mental health problems.

Reducing stigma and discrimination

The CMHC Foundation, the private non-profit supporting organization of Connecticut Mental Health Center, has long been CMHC's public outreach and education arm. It hopes to strengthen this role by supporting more targeted programs to help reduce stigma and discrimination against people with mental health problems. "We've identified our strategic goals for the next three years, and that is definitely one of them," said Kyle Pedersen, director of The CMHC Foundation. "The vision has predominately come from conversations within our Board of Directors about things they care about and believe the Foundation should be addressing."

Meanwhile the Peer Support team at CMHC—staff members who work in various roles and who identify themselves as persons in recovery—has also chosen stigma reduction as a goal they want to undertake within the Center. Peers have launched several new initiatives, including participating in CMHC's orientation for new staff; hosting a monthly Brown Bag Lunch; and preparing presentations to deliver to clinical teams at CMHC. Each of these initiatives serves to inform members of the CMHC community about who they are and what they have to offer, while challenging and debunking myths about individuals in recovery.

Luis Coelho, a Health Navigator at the CMHC Wellness Center and member of the Peer Support staff, explained that it's important for him to be an example "not only to clients, but to the people I work with," by modeling what recovery can look like and being a resource for clients and clinicians.

Is discrimination really a problem?

Yes. Despite greater public understanding of mental illness, social acceptance of people with serious mental illness has not improved—and may have worsened in recent years. Many people believe that individuals with mental illness are violent, although research has repeatedly disproved this notion. Larry Davidson, PhD, director of the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health, wrote eloquently about this misperception following the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012 which—like other violent crimes linked to people with possible mental health problems—only reinforced this myth. (Read Dr. Davidson's articles here and here.)

Stigma vs. discrimination

While some prefer the term "stigma," Elizabeth Flanagan, PhD, assistant professor in Yale University's Department of Psychiatry and an expert on stigma in mental health settings, says "discrimination" underscores the seriousness of the issue and signals that it must be addressed through multiple avenues, including legal ones. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) uses the term "discrimination." Its ADS Center—"Resource Center to Promote Acceptance, Dignity, and Social Inclusion Associated with Mental Health"—works to "counteract prejudice and discrimination and promote social inclusion for people with mental health problems." Nevertheless, Dr. Flanagan says the word "stigma" has been used in the mental health field for many years and it means something to people; she uses both words, depending on the context.

Achieving the vision

With Peer Support staff initiatives underway and the Foundation's strategic planning complete, what strategies are likely to be effective in achieving the goal of reducing stigma and discrimination?

"The research shows that to decrease stigma, the most important thing is to really get to know a person," says Dr. Flanagan, "and to work with that person on a project where you both have important roles that don't have anything to do with mental illness." This experiential approach enables individuals to see people for who they are and what they have to contribute, rather than viewing them as "a diagnosis."

"We want to let people know our values and what we can bring to the table," explains a Peer Staff member." All peers don't look alike, and all peers don't have the same story… each person has their own walk and their own story to tell."

This article was submitted by Shane Seger on February 10, 2014.

Members of the Peer Support team at CMHC (L to R): Maria Edwards, Deborah Jackson, Melissa Dias, Shumra Chambers, José Baez.

Elizabeth Flanagan, PhD

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