Bringing mental illness ‘out of the shadows’

On Dec. 14, 2012, Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where he then proceeded to massacre 20 children and six adult staff members before taking his own life. Before he even went to the school, he shot and killed his mother, Nancy Lanza.

This is not the first time the U.S. has seen gun violence in schools. This most recent event has merited much discussion in the past months. IU Professor Bernice Pescosolido said two issues that are always raised whenever these types of depersonalized mass shootings occur are gun control and mental illness.

Bernice Pescosolido is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at IU and director of the Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services Research. Much of her research revolves around negative stigmas surrounding those who suffer from mental illness.

“The problem is that people believe that these things are always perpetrated by people with mental illness,” Pescosolido said. “There’s been some very good research on this by the National Academy of Sciences. They studied 27 different high school shootings and found, of the 27 kids that were involved, only 11 had mental health issues.”

On June 3, the Obama administration welcomed a National Conference on Mental Health to the White House. Pescosolido said she believed part of the conference was to correct the misinformed image that people involved in mass shootings suffer from mental illness.

“The main goal of this conference is not to start a conversation,” Obama said in his speech at the conference. “So many of you have spent decades waging long and lonely battles to be heard. Instead, it’s about elevating that conversation to a national level and bringing mental illness out of the shadows.”

In attendance were those who suffered from mental illness and their families, educators, faith leaders, veterans and many others, including Pescosolido.

“The way that we tend to attack it is at a grassroots level,” Pescosolido said. “Different groups have different ideas, and they try to either do local activities or they try to produce PSAs, and so I think the idea behind the White House Mental Health Conference was really to sort of, again, put the national spotlight on everything that’s being done at many levels.”

Pescosolido said about a month after the Sandy Hook tragedy, conversations were started between organizations, researchers and others, and Vice President Joe Biden’s staffers about ideas to try to eliminate, or at least reduce, stigma in the U.S. The idea for the conference originated from these conversations.

“They decided that they wanted to do this conference and to do a new website and to really bring to the conference, I was one of the few researchers there, but to bring to the conference a lot of heads of these grassroots organizations, like the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA, National Association of Broadcasters, Active Minds, which is a college group for mental health issues, and to try to get them all kind of on the same page and appreciating what they’re doing through this website,” Pescosolido said.

The Obama administration launched a website,, that has tabs offering readers answers regarding myths and facts surrounding mental illness and how to get help. The website lists several of the grassroots organizations that attended the conference that can help create community events to keep people informed on mental health.

“For people who work in this area, even being recognized for the work that these people do in the grassroots is really a shot in the arm, like somebody’s listening, somebody cares,” Pescosolido said. “To have the White House care is really, really important.”

In 2011, one in five Americans experienced a mental health issue, according to the website. Pescosolido has been working for years on eliminating the stigmas surrounding mental health problems which often keeps people from seeking help.

“It seems that the big debate used to be that, is it the behavior of people with mental illness that causes people to reject them, or is it the label, like when you hear somebody has depression or mental illness you have this automatic recoil behavior. The label itself is very powerful,” Pescosolido said. “Our research has shown that actually both of those things matter. If people have certain behaviors people are likely to express prejudice and if they also have been labeled as having a mental illness then there’s an extra hint towards stigma.”

Pescosolido has worked with other researchers to find the root causes of stigma and how they can go about eliminating it from society.

“The original campaign, since World War II, has really been focused on this idea of mental illness as a disease like any other,” Pescosolido said. “So if we could convince people that mental illness has genetic and biological roots, like diabetes or cancer, the stigma would go away. Our research shows that Americans understand that now. They understand that mental illness is a disease, that it has roots and disorders in the brain.”

Pescosolido said though Americans do have more of an understanding now, it hasn’t really reduced stigma. She said what their research has done, to date, is to try and shift the way that most organizations have been trying to reduce stigma.

“I’m not saying that that didn’t work, but I’m saying right now, at this point and time in the United States, that tagline, or that message, has taken us as far as it’s gonna take us in terms of reducing stigma,” Pescosolido said. “I mean, Americans get that there are really these underlying biological roots to it, so however far that message has taken us, it’s taken us. It hasn’t really reduced the amount of rejection people are willing to express towards people with mental health issues.”

Pescosolido said they need to change the dialogue and the messages in the public service announcements. She said the image that people with mental illness have no chance at leading normal lives or recovering needs to be dispelled.

“Thinking about Sandy Hook and those kinds of situations, you know you’ve really set up a situation where people are so isolated that they just don’t have much of a stake in their own lives or in the lives of their communities,” Pescosolido said. “So it really is focusing on the fact that people with mental illness can live full lives. They can recover. But it’s just like cancer, not everybody recovers. We used to think that nobody recovered from mental illness. That’s just not true. A lot of people recover from mental illness and can live really great lives, full lives.”

As moves continue to be made to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health issues, here at IU, the number of students who attend Counseling and Psychological Services sessions increases every year.

“I used to say that the single most common thing that brought students in was some kind of depression or mood disorder,” Nancy Stockton, director of CAPS, said.

Now, more students are attending CAPS sessions for stress or anxiety related issues.

“There are increasing numbers of students trying to use CAPS, our numbers go up a little bit each year,” Stockton said. “In that sense it’s always a struggle to have enough resources to meet the needs of all the students, in terms of staffing. We try to be as creative in using our resources as we can.”

Crimson CORPS, a group of carefully selected undergraduate students who have been trained by the professional staff at CAPS, have been working to reduce stigma surrounding mental health since it was founded in January 2012. While also trying to reduce stigma, the small group of students work to promote awareness of mental health issues and help fellow students struggling with mental illness get the help they need.

“I would say that it is more prevalent than we think,” IU senior Rebecca Dreher founding member of Crimson CORPS, said about stigma. “By educating and supporting our peers, we hope to reduce the stigma of our generation.”

Dreher and the Crimson CORPS have participated in programs such as Culture of Care week, depression screenings and Celebrate Your Body Week to remove stigma.

“Our mission is to provide caring, open-minded, respectful peer support, which is what CORPS stands for,” Dreher said. “So, in conjunction with CAPS, we participate in programs such as Culture of Care week and we also recently created a PSA about recognizing the signs of mental health issues. We also do classroom presentations on these topics. We’re trained to deal with these issues, but we’re also familiarized with other resources, if it goes beyond our training.”

Stacey Kim, a staff therapist at CAPS and Crimson CORPS coordinator, said as people become more comfortable coming into counseling, which is evidenced by numbers across the board at college campuses, CAPS works to keep up with the continuous increase through a variety of resources.

“The purpose of Crimson CORPS is to kind of be an extension of the counseling center,” Kim said. “There are a lot of barriers to coming in for help, stigma, not knowing enough about it, thinking you have to be crazy to talk to a counselor, feel like your problem isn’t big enough, and what the research shows is someone whose having a tough time is much more likely to turn around and talk to somebody their age, a peer, than come over and get some professional assistance.”

Kim said one of the goals of Crimson CORPS and CAPS goals is to normalize the conversation around having emotional and mental distress, as stigma remains one of the barriers to suffering students.

In the annual survey conducted by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, the percentage of students seeking counseling at four-year public universities was 7.7 percent from the year 2008 to 2009. 752 college and university counseling center directors were invited to participate in the survey. 424 directors completed the 2009-2010 survey and it was reported that 8.7 percent of students were counseled at institutions with more than 35,001 students.

“Our real hope is that we are contributing to a change on campus where we’re all willing to step in,” Kim said. “We’re not making miracles, but I think we’re chipping away at that for sure.”

Pescosolido discussed different levels of stigma, including self-stigma and courtesy stigma. Self-stigma is the first thing a person has to address, Pescosolido said. Courtesy stigma is the idea that people who hang out with people who are known to suffer from mental illness are going to be looked at differently by others.

While there is still a lot of work to be done in erasing stigma surrounding mental illness, Pescosolido said, if stigma is hit at every level, personal, family, friend, public and legal, then there is a greater chance of it being reduced.

“We need to have people understand that people who don’t abandon people when they have trouble, whether it’s a broken leg or cancer or depression, are really great people,” Pescosolido said. “Those are the people that we should be like.”

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