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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Erasing social stigma against mental health differences

Published April 11th, 2014

Mental health stigma is a national phenomenon that is also an issue at UW-River Falls: almost 50 percent of UWRF students believe others think less of someone who has received mental health treatment, according to a survey published by Counseling Services.

The Healthy Minds Study gauged responses from UW students on a variety of mental health topics and compared results with the national average. According to the results, 10 percent of UWRF students have had serious thoughts about committing suicide. Of those who have experienced suicidal thoughts, 41 have not sought assistance.

Those suffering from mental illness sometimes criticize themselves for receiving treatment. The combination of these different stigmas makes it difficult for some to seek treatment. It is a barrier to recovery from mental illness, said Jennifer Elsesser, intake counselor at Counseling Services.

However, the perceived stigma is worse than the actual stigma. While 57 percent of survey respondents think most people view receiving mental health treatment as a sign of personal failure, only 18 percent of respondents personally hold that belief.

University officials have made it their goal to “address mental health from a public perspective” and “promote student help seeking and reduce stigma”, according to the survey.

“These stigmas create barriers between everybody,” Elsesser said.

Mental health stigma has caused a disparity between the treatment of those suffering from physical ailments and those suffering with mental illnesses, Elsesser said.

Since mental health symptoms are not visible to others, mental health disorders are sometimes misunderstood. Those not affected sometimes judge individuals seeking mental health treatment. The beliefs that others view mental health problems negatively also perpetuate stereotypes.

Students and faculty at UWRF are working to reduce stigmas and their effects. Counseling services has made an effort to make its services more accessible and visible to students. The department has also created wellness programs, like yoga and meditation that are highly visible.

However, Elsesser said that the message of reducing stigma is more readily received by students when other students are delivering that message.

Students have taken action by creating an organization called Active Minds. President of Active Minds Brianna Pezon joined the organization because she wanted to become an advocate for mental health stigma.

“It’s a fun-loving, understanding group of people who all strive to be better and make society better,” said Pezon.

According to its website, the organization is “determined to eliminate the negative stigma surrounding mental health issues, and also determined to promote positive mental health and self care”.

Members have organized several events on campus to reach out to students and are currently planning a random act of kindness week that is scheduled to take place shortly before finals week. The group plans to host several activities in the University Center to show students that everyone suffers from finals week stress.

“The organization is helping students find a voice,” Elsesser said, “and students see that counseling isn’t so scary.”

All students and staff are welcome to join the organization and students interested in helping reduce mental health stigma on campus are encouraged to join Active Minds and can contact the organization at uwrfactiveminds@gmail.com.

Those suffering from mental health issues can also schedule an appointment with counseling services at (715) 425-3884.

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