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 literacy must be included within high school health curriculum nationwide. According to educational experts in the U.S. and Canada, mental health literacy would ideally contain at least these 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 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.
The Chad's Legacy Project endorses a curriculum developed and made available by the Jordan Binion Project and Washington State OSPI; Project AWARE entitled "Mental Health & High School". The Jordan Binion Project provides curriculum training for school staff in Washington Sate and now also other states interested in the curriculum. Efforts are currently underway with healthcare providers, education professionals and the Washington State Legislature to pave the way in making Mental Health Literacy easily accessible in all Washington State High Schools. Mental Health Literacy in Washington schools was also a key initiative within the "Mental Health in Education" workgroup attached to the 2018 Washington State Mental Health Summit and the Washington State Legislature's 2019 Children's Mental Health Workgroup Steering Committee.
Schools, districts and ESD's wishing to participate in enacting free and comprehensive curriculum before before legislative action may contact the Jordan Binion Project at 253-318-1232, or through their website.