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UNC-Chapel Hill students share how they they think about mental health. Featuring Jerrod Powers, Yusuf Brown, Kimberly Rivers, Todd Jensen, Nelson Pace, Gabrielle Marino, Marco Fanous, Allana Geoffrion, Kate Pitman and Nikhil Tomar. [transcript]

UNC-Chapel Hill student Hiwot Ekuban stood in the middle of Lenoir Dining Hall smiling into a camera and holding in front of her a small whiteboard. Freshly scribbled across the board in pink dry-erase marker were Ekuban’s words of support for those with mental health concerns: “Beyoncé says ‘Mental health is important!’” The world-famous superstar has publicly acknowledged a depressive episode in her past.

Stigma Free Carolina campaign
Messages of support are key components of the Stigma Free Carolina campaign. Students contributed messages at the campaign kick-off, held Sept. 12. View the messages at

Ekuban was participating in the Stigma Free Carolina campaign. Started by three Royster fellows, the campaign seeks to raise campus comfort with acknowledging mental health concerns and to encourage those experiencing such concerns to seek help. The three fellows led a campus planning committee of over 30 individuals representing more than 15 campus departments and organizations.

Royster fellow and doctoral student Nikhil Tomar got the idea for the campaign when he saw a 2010 Healthy Minds study showing that while half of UNC-Chapel Hill students thought others would think less of them for having mental health problems, 90 percent of Carolina students responded that they would not think less of someone with a mental illness.

“There was this huge gap between the perception of stigma and the reality,” Tomar said.

This over-perception of stigma is a problem for those who need treatment for mental health issues. Research shows that the perception of stigma can delay or prevent people from seeking treatment. Tomar said his conversations with campus mental health counselors further confirmed this trend.

“UNC has lots of mental health resources, but students are coming in late. So why are they coming in late? Research has shown that stigma is one of the factors,” Tomar said.

Tomar teamed up with two other Royster fellows and doctoral students, Nelson Pace (epidemiology) and Todd Jensen (social work), to begin a social media campaign to reveal the true strength of support on campus for individuals who experience mental health concerns. Students, like Ekuban, take pictures of themselves holding messages of support and post them to social media using the hashtag #StigmaFreeCarolina. Tomar, Pace and Jensen believe revealing the level of campus support will make people feel more comfortable talking about their concerns and seeking help.

Jensen said what started as a small social media campaign quickly grew into a multi-pronged, campus-wide effort to plan education and training focused on stigma and mental health on campus.

“Pretty much everyone we came into contact with was right on board,” Jensen said. The campaign now includes several educational events throughout the fall, including a panel discussion and interactive theater held in early October. Faculty, administration, student groups and staff have all expressed interest in joining the effort.

The kick-off event was held in Lenoir Dining Hall on Sept. 12. That’s where Ekuban and other students had the opportunity to be among the first to post using the hashtag #StigmaFreeCarolina. Students also lined up to spin a wheel and answer trivia about mental health. Winners received UNC Student Stores discount vouchers. To encourage attendance for the kick-off lunch, Carolina Dining Services also presented a discount to all campus members who didn’t have a meal plan. But all who participated learned at least a few more facts about the campus’ resources and the prevalence of mental health issues.

Nikhil Tomar (middle) initiated the idea of Stigma Free Carolina. Nelson Pace (left) and Todd Jensen joined Tomar to lead a planning committee including more than 15 campus organizations.

Tomar said he hopes events like the kick-off will help make people more comfortable talking about mental health.

“There is a notion that it is a taboo issue,” Tomar said. “We should have a conversation because it’s impacting a number of lives. As a society we have a responsibility to make sure that people talk about this issue.”

The panel on Oct. 6 brought together several faculty and community experts on mental health, including faculty chair Bruce Cairns. Jensen said he hopes educational events will not only decrease stigma and its perception, but also redefine how the community understands mental health.

“Mental health is a spectrum, and we’re all somewhere on that spectrum,” Jensen said.

Pace said the ultimate goal is to change the culture surrounding mental health on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus and provide a model for other college campuses to follow.

“We do hope that by the involvement of staff and faculty it will be something that is long-lived, and will therefore change the campus environment,” Pace said. “In the end it won’t just be something for UNC, it will be something for the greater collegiate community.”

♦ Written by Jess Clark, master’s degree candidate in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication.


Audio Transcript

Stigma Free Carolina Audio Collage Recorded September 12, 2014 by Jess Clark

You could feel alone or you could feel as just…people aren’t able to understand really where you’re coming from…

It does happen, it’s a reality that people are afraid to ask for help…

At the same time, I feel like people here are very understanding…

We believe that every one has the right not to be held down by a social construction like stigma…

You wouldn’t stigmatize against someone who breaks their leg…

You wouldn’t judge a diabetic for needing to take insulin, you shouldn’t feel shame for something you can’t control….

Mental health doesn’t reflect poorly on one’s character, or life, but it’s simply a nature of living…

I think everyone knows people who have had mental health problems or have sought mental health help…

If you’re coming to someone else for help, you’re not—you’re not weird…

It’s a thing that happens to a lot of us here at college…

I think it is common, and I think it might me more common that we like to admit…

I don’t think any less of anyone with a mental disorder….

The people I’ve know, I haven’t thought any less of them…

I would never personally judge someone or pass judgment on someone for any kind of disorder…

Next time you talk to someone, don’t think how sensitive the issue is, or how taboo the topic is, just talk.

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