The phrases "Join the Conversation" and "Let's Talk Stigma" on either side of a microphone.

Join the Conversation: An Anti-Stigma Campaign

Back in the fall of 2015, a coalition of Erie County-based behavioral health providers, agencies, and funders began to take shape. The group, coming together as the Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition, dedicated itself to addressing the negative perceptions that so many continue to have about mental health challenges and people who deal with these challenges.

Fifteen founding members were at the table from the beginning: Brylin Behavioral Health System, Children’s Mental Health Coalition of Western New York Inc., Community Partners of WNY, Compeer of Buffalo, Crisis Services, Erie County Office for People with Disabilities, Erie County Department of Mental Health, Fellows Action Network, Fuerst Consulting Corporation, Jewish Family Service of Buffalo and Erie County, The Mental Health Association of Erie County, Inc., Millennium Collaborative Care, The Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation, Preventionfocus, and the Telesco Creative Group.

Tower Foundation staff were at the table, in an advisory role, from the coalition’s first meetings.   In fact, the meetings were often around our boardroom table.  Following a contribution of $10,000 in seed funding to support planning for the campaign, The Foundation awarded a two-year grant of $200,000, joining the Patrick P. Lee Foundation and the Erie County Department of Mental Health as lead funders.

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.  To get a baseline of perceptions that they hoped to change, the coalition commissioned a survey of 400 Erie County residents in 2016. The survey found that 75% of respondents believe that “mentally ill people can’t get better.” 54% classified people with mental illness as “unpredictable.”

To work on shifting these perceptions, the coalition launched a public awareness campaign, “Join the Conversation,” at a press conference at Canalside in Buffalo.  The campaign shares stories about living with mental health challenges through social media, television, radio, and other venues. In late 2018, the campaign’s creative team completed a series of compelling videos that will be shared through social media and that feature community members dealing with mental health challenges. Visit the Coalition’s Facebook page at

Public messaging strategy will combat negative stereotypes and encourage open and constructive conversations about mental illness and recovery. Social media engagement has been high.  By fall 2018 there had been 32,920 website page views, 690,574 Facebook impressions, 60,000 video views, 629 Twitter followers, and 273,716 Twitter impressions.

One year into the campaign, the public survey was repeated with the same questions, but with a new, randomized sample of 400 community members. One year is not much time in a public awareness campaign, and most movement in the survey could be accounted for by random variation. One notable exception was the response to this question:  If I had a mental health issue, I would be comfortable talking to a family member.”   The baseline response was 52% agreement. In the newer survey, this increased to 66%.

The coalition’s goal is a lofty one: change hearts and minds. This goal will require breaking down stereotypes and challenging some very entrenched attitudes. We’ve been enthusiastic supporters, in part because we do not see many initiatives so squarely aimed at one of our results statements — Stigma related to mental illness is eliminated.   The coalition has begun to reach out to new partners — mental health providers and additional funders – to sustain this work and bring new voices to the conversation.

Learn more about the campaign at