Stigma vs Mental Health Education
Chad laid quietly on a gurney in the emergency department, waiting to be admitted to the psychiatric unit for the first time. When it was clear he was to be in the hospital for at least a week, his first request was for us, his parents, to tell his siblings that he was merely staying at a friend’s apartment. His concern that they may think less of him for his illness weighed heavily. The stigma attached to mental illness and resulting silence can be almost as damaging as the disease.
Terms such as “crazy” or “nuts” are commonplace, but are extremely harmful to the process of seeking and sustaining care. It drives silence within those suffering that prevents a willingness to accept help. The mystery of mental illness and how it plays into the mindset of the rest of us only feeds that silence.
When misconceptions create stigma for those around a sufferer, it is easy to understand why keeping quiet about mental illness is just easier. Silence and the fear of being labeled often leads to limited communication with the very providers that can help. It can even lead to denial of critically needed care. Mental illness is no less a disease than Coronary Heart Disease, Arthritis, or Multiple Sclerosis. It is merely much less understood.
The Chad’s Legacy Project embraces an initiative to introduce mental health literacy in all Washington high schools. Current Health education curriculum focus primarily on physical health. While OSPI (the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction) has developed recommended mental health literacy standards, there is no coherent state-wide commitment to mental health literacy within Washington high school health courses. This, is in spite of the fact Washington State has agreed that Physical and Mental health should be integrated in the healthcare system. Education must be part of that integration.
In order to affect a lasting end to the stigma, Mental Health curricula must be included within high school health curriculum nationwide. As an example, Mental Health Literacy which focuses on students from grades 8 to 12, addresses five key areas:
Basic Types of Mental Illness-
A brief look at diagnoses including Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia,
Anxiety and Depression
Signs and Progression of Illness-
An overview of early signs of the types of illness, progressions of
As an example, tools exist to allow a student to experience the effects of disorders such as Schizophrenia using headphones in
recreating the experience of hearing voices. These demonstrations are
powerful in helping an individual develop empathy, understand and
appreciate the challenges faced by an individual suffering from such an
Types of Care-
An outline of the types of current psychiatric care, ranging from
psychotherapies to effective medications.
Summary and Resources-
A summary of the course and the presentation of resources for crisis and support. Would include not only what a sufferer has access to, but how a friend or loved one can aid in seeking care. Also covers privacy laws and how they relate to mental health.
An individual suffering from mental illness should never be in a position to hide their care for fear of judgement and being labeled. Mental illness is a disease, not a weakness. Mental Health Literacy in high schools provides an effective, evidence-based, long term solution to ending mental illness stigma, beginning with an entire generation. The result would be shortened spans of first illness onset to first access to care, increased school productivity, saved lives and healthier communities.
Download the complete Mental Health Literacy Library introduction and press release from August 2021 here.
Chad's Legacy Project and the SMART Center at the University of Washington have jointly created a comprehensive library of existing national Mental Health Literacy curriculum at www.mentalhealthinstruction.org. Phase I began with a focus on Mental Health Literacy.
Listings were first measured against four components defined as the corner stones of Mental Health Literacy for submission:
Understanding how to foster and maintain positive mental health
Understanding mental health disorders and their treatments
Decreasing stigma of mental illness
Understanding how to seek help effectively for self and others
The components of this library include:
A comprehensive listing of available curricula and mental health presentation programs
A quick reference tool for each curriculum and program, referencing K-12 Learning Standards in Mental Health according to the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
An Implementation Guide toolkit for best practices in initiating a curriculum.
This library is intended for use by any teacher, staff member, district or Educational Service District in the United States to aid in their search for the mental health instruction needs of their schools.
Currently, we are in the midst of the professional development of a new site for MentalHealthInstruction.org as part of Phase II of this project. This new site will launch us into Phase III where we will add three other categories of learning: Social Emotional Learning, Substance Use and Suicide Prevention. Upon completion, it will be the first comprehensive teacher resource for Mental Health education curricula of its kind. Learn more about this effort here.