Awareness Helps But It’ll Take More To Shed Mental Illness Stigma
Tourists often visit San Diego for the beaches and sunshine, but on a recent trip from Iowa, Teresa Goedicke was drawn to a temporary landmark in the city’s entertainment district. A weekend mural on a Gaslamp Quarter street corner asked passersby to consider mental illness.
The pop-up exhibit offered Goedicke a physical representation of the invisible disease she knows well. Goedicke’s 23-year-old son is among more than 46 million American adults — or about one in five — who carry a mental illness diagnosis.
"He struggles immensely," she said.
Mental health advocates are educating San Diegans and people across the U.S. about the disease during National Mental Illness Awareness Week. The campaign aims to shed the stigma around the illness, but changing that perception hinges on more than just information.
Cathryn Nacario, CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, in San Diego, said the national campaign reminds the public about the prevalence of conditions like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
"It’s all around us, at all times," Nacario said.
NAMI San Diego recruited passersby to show their support of those with mental illness by placing a green ribbon alongside the mural in the city's entertainment district.
Local company Neurocrine Biosciences sponsored the three-panel art project that featured artwork by artist Ted Meyer, Chicano Park muralist Armando Nuñez and Grossmont College art students and donated funds to NAMI San Diego.
Nacario said simple acts like pinning the ribbon can open the door to important conversations.
"Say 'Hey, you know what? We did this today and maybe you didn't know that I dealt with anxiety most of my life,'" Nacario said.
Those discussions are crucial to shattering the negative perception.
Patrick Corrigan, editor of the peer-reviewed Stigma and Health journal, said while awareness can boost mental health literacy, real impact occurs when people share their diagnoses so others can associate the disease with a familiar face.
“If I’m aware of people who have mental illness and in the process realize they are complex, dignified human beings like anybody else, that will challenge the stigma,” the Illinois Institute of Technology psychology professor said.
Corrigan, also a principal investigator at the National Consortium on Stigma and Empowerment, said he worries the negative perception around mental illness is growing because it is often mentioned in the same breath as mass murderers.
Stories shared by famous people have helped address the stigma, including vocalist Demi Lovato, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and John Nash, the late Nobel Prize recipient whose struggles with schizophrenia were portrayed in "A Beautiful Mind," but Corrigan said their celebrity status limits the impact.
"It doesn’t change attitudes because John Nash isn’t like most people," the licensed clinical psychologist said. "It’s the degree to which the average person comes out."
To facilitate that, Corrigan helped develop the Honest Open Proud program. It teaches those with mental illness how to disclose their diagnosis. He himself was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, major depression and bipolar disorder — although he questions whether the latter is accurate.
NAMI San Diego's Nacario, who doesn't have a diagnosis but experiences general anxiety, said addressing the stigma can empower more people to access treatment, including medication, therapy and lifestyle changes.
"Then that will impact in the long term the amount of people we touch and the amount of people we're able to talk with about the recovery and (that) you can live successfully with a mental health disorder," she said.
Nacario said people who are looking for behavioral health services can discuss it with their primary care doctor, check with their employee assistance program or contact NAMI San Diego. The organization offers several resources for people living with mental illness and those who support them.
Goedicke, whose son was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder when he was 18, said some people with mental illness may resist help and distance themselves from loved ones.
"They just want to be left alone because it hurts. They don’t want to bother people," she said.
She saw that in her own son, but with her continued help and assistance from a service he now lives on his own. She said she hopes others receive similar support whether they show they need it or not.
"What you see on the outside is not what’s going on on the inside, and just be careful — people are going through a lot; everybody's going through a lot," Goedicke said. "Just be kind."
The mural that drew her to the Gaslamp Quarter will go into storage until a future NAMI San Diego event. Meanwhile, the battle against mental health stigma goes on.