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Sociology professors seek to end mental health stigma



One in four American adults suffers from mental illness in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Those who deal with mental health issues can easily feel stigmatized without help.

Bernice Pescosolido, director of the Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services, guides anti-stigma campaigns to change individuals, institutional structure and culture surrounding mental health at universities.

“Stigma really is just a social signal of difference, and difference translates into differences in power and resources and opportunities,” Pescosolido said.

It leads to prejudice and discrimination toward individuals with these differences, Pescosolido said, such as ideas that people with mental illness are violent, unpredictable and unreliable.

Pescosolido serves on the board of directors and chairs a scientific advisory council of U Bring Change 2 Mind, a national organization founded in 2010 to end stigma.

U Bring Change 2 Mind specifically functions under the organization at the university level.

“Part of U Bring Change 2 Mind is to make the community a safe and stigma-free zone, but it’s also designed to improve and push the University toward better services — more continuous services for students who need it,” Pescosolido said.

Daniel Eisenberg, professor of health management and policy at University of Michigan, found college students with mental illness who have greater personal stigma are less likely to seek medication, therapy or other forms of support than those who aren’t.

Associate professor of sociology Brea Perry described the rise of the Columbine effect, which is the linking of depression with dangerous attitudes in teenagers.

“This idea of dangerousness — to the self and to others — is the number-one driver of stigma,” Perry said.

The research suggests these perceptions aren’t true, Pescosolido said.

“We know very clearly that people with mental illness are less violent than the average American,” Pescosolido said. “They’re less likely to be perpetrators of crime.”

As researchers study mental illness, they hope to uncover the biological and social roots of mental illness and figure out how to fight the stigma — a much needed area of research.

Pescosolido developed a network model about how social ties push and pull people in different 
directions.

“When someone is experiencing mental illness, the reaction is different among people who are close to that individual and people who are peripheral members of your network,” Perry said.

People who are close show support, while peripheral members distance themselves from the 
sufferer.

Most Americans believe mental illness has something to do with genetics and chemicals in the brain, Pescosolido said.

“Yet their prejudicial believes and desire for social distance from people with mental illness has not changed in accordance with that belief that it’s a disease,” Pescosolido said.

The best way to fight stigma isn’t always so clear.

Certain anti-stigma activist groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness pushed an idea that mental illness is a brain disorder, a biological illness, Perry said.

“They put out these pictures of mental illness with the brain,” Perry said. “There was a lot of research that showed if you can remove responsibility or attribution of blame then you can reduce stigma.”

In some ways, it 
backfired.

People ended up seeing mental illness as something that can’t be alleviated, 
Perry said.

“Compared to 1950, if you ask people about mental illness, they’re more likely to spontaneously mention violence,” Pescosolido said.

Stigma of marrying people with mental illness increased because people are afraid of those genetic predispositions, Pescosolido said. She said campaigns like the National Alliance on Mental Illness need to understand how those with mental illnesses are different but still part of society.

“People feel like ‘the other’ for many reasons,” Pescosolido said.

This otherness, such as how people describe international students and racial, ethnic and sexual minorities, can describe mental health status as well.

The NIMH’s statistic that one in four American adults suffers from mental illness in a given year might seem troubling at first, but in fact it requires clarification.

“When you say one in four, it doesn’t mean one in four people are going to be chronically mentally ill,” Pescosolido said. “It means one in four people at some point in their life is going to experience an episode of mental health problems.”

These problems could be anything, such as temporary stress when a family member dies that makes someone function less optimally for a period of time.

Pescosolido said she hopes to make the atmosphere less impersonal by making people more informed about how to deal with mental illness of others. She said some solutions aren’t as simple as going to the Counseling and Psychological Services.

“Sometimes what people want is empathy,” Pescosolido said. “Sometimes what they want is just a sense that you’re not going to exclude them because they have these problems.”

Avenues like wellness centers at universities offer different pathways for people to drop in and deal with whatever issues they have, Pescosolido said.

College is all about expressing your difference and what makes you special, Pescosolido said.

“My philosophy about life is that everybody has something,” Pescosolido said. “There’s no such thing as a perfect human being.”

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