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Join the Conversation: An Anti-Stigma Campaign

Author: Nicholas Randell

Just a few days ago, Chuck and I stopped off for a celebration at a downtown Buffalo restaurant. The celebration toasted almost two years of hard work from a coalition of Erie County-based behavioral health providers, agencies, and funders. The group had come together to respond to the negative perceptions that so many continue to have about mental health challenges and people who deal with these challenges. As providers in the field, team members felt strongly that recovery from mental illness or addiction should be viewed as analogous to recovery from cancer or diabetes. Not a period of shame or weakness. The reality is that one in five Americans have significant mental health challenges. The majority of these individuals (an estimated 80%) fail to seek the supports they need – often because of the stigma attached.

On May 30th, at Canalside in Buffalo, the Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition launched “Join the Conversation,“ a public awareness campaign to fight the stigma associated with mental illness. The campaign will share stories(#LetsTalkStigma) about living with mental health challenges through social media, television, radio, and other venues. Public messaging strategy will combat negative stereotypes and encourage open and constructive conversations about mental illness and recovery. A website is up and running at https://letstalkstigma.org.

The Anti-Stigma coalition began meeting back in the fall of 2015. Group members included leaders from 15 organizations dedicated to changing attitudes and raising awareness. Tower staff were at the table, in an advisory role, from almost the beginning. In fact, coalition meetings were often around our boardroom table. Why were we so supportive? We simply do not see many initiatives that aim so squarely at one of our results statement: Stigma related to mental illness is eliminated. The Tower Foundation contributed $10,000 in seed funding to support planning for the campaign. The Erie County Department of Mental Health was both a team member and early financial supporter, contributing $25,000 to the effort.

The coalition’s goal is a lofty one. Change hearts and minds. This goal will require breaking down stereotypes/myths in order to create a new dialogue about mental health. To get a baseline of perceptions that they hope to change, the coalition commissioned a survey of 400 Erie County residents. The survey found that 75% of respondents believe that “mentally ill people can’t get better.” 54% classified people with mental illness as “unpredictable.”

Planning and fundraising heated up this spring, ahead of the late May launch. Again, the Erie County Department of Mental Health provided an early boost with $60,000 to help kickoff the campaign. The Patrick P. Lee Foundation came aboard with a generous $300,000 grant over three years. Our trustees approved an additional $200,000 over two. The coalition continues to seek funding from a range of sources. The campaign was designed to start modestly and, hopefully, pick up steam over a run of five years or longer.

We are excited to continue as partners with Join the Conversation, and hope to celebrate more successes. Visit https://letstalkstigma.org and make a pledge to end stigma! You can also sign up to receive updates from the campaign.