Conversations sparked by research and service impact Chapel Hill and beyond.
What does stigma feel like? This question opened the Redefining Mental Health panel discussion in October. The panel was one of many educational events held by Stigma Free Carolina, an initiative of The Graduate School and the Royster Society of Fellows.
Stigma Free Carolina, now in its second year, is the brainchild of three UNC-Chapel Hill doctoral students and Royster Fellows Nikhil Tomar, Todd Jensen and Nelson Pace. The research-based service project aims to demystify and destigmatize mental illness and connect students with information about available mental health resources on campus. The initiative primarily seeks visibility and engagement in the community to spark conversations that reduce stigma.
Moderated by Sue Estroff, a professor of social medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill, the panel included campus and local experts who are immersed in the topic of mental health on a daily basis.
So what does stigma feel like?
“Stigma feels like an averted gaze,” said Estroff. It feels like that moment of looking away, and not wanting to be looked at. It feels hopeless. Powerless. It feels like exclusion. It feels like a frightening separation between those who need support, and the people who can offer personal support and professional help. These were the sentiments that echoed throughout the assembly hall from both panel speakers and audience members.
As Mitch Prinstein pointed out, mental illness is not a topic that is often publicized on social media, or even in our private lives with the people closest to us. For this reason, many people who are trying to figure out how to cope with mental illness are trying to figure it out alone. Many won’t seek treatment due to stigma.
“We have both a mind and a body, and there is no way to disconnect them,” Maureen Windle said. Stigma Free Carolina founder Tomar emphasized that taking care of mental health not only reduces stress, but also enhances the daily living experience.
When coping with mental illness or stress of any kind, some days will inevitably be better or worse than others. Dawn Dreyer and Karen Dunn emphasized the impact that a positive community and story sharing can have on making sure that more days are good days and great days.
When the Redefining Mental Health discussion was opened to the floor for questions, the first was, “How can I help?” The most important answer given was to provide a safe space for students to talk about any mental health concerns that they may be experiencing. Often, just waiting a second after class to ask, “Are you OK?” goes a long way.
All three founders cited working with outstanding students and supporters as the most rewarding outcome of being a part of Stigma Free Carolina. “This campaign is only possible because of the Royster Fellows, The Graduate School and the overwhelming support of our many campus partners,” Tomar stated.
The research component of the initiative has had a ripple effect beyond the Carolina community and on other college campuses around the country. Other campus initiatives have already spun off of and collaborated with Stigma Free Carolina. The three founders said that students at campuses such as the University of Virginia and University of Florida have communicated with them for insight and ideas.
“The research component is integral in having something that is meaningful, not just for our campus, but for other campuses as well,” Pace said.
Tomar, Jensen and Pace said there are several keys to sustaining Stigma Free Carolina once they graduate: partnership with The Graduate School and the Royster Society of Fellows, the formation of a leadership team, and becoming a student organization. Ideally, stigma-reduction initiatives will cease to be needed once the stigma is gone.
“Stress is probably never going to be separated from the college experience,” Jensen said. The ultimate goal is to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health that would prevent those experiencing stress or other mental health concerns from getting the help they need.
“So I think that the ideal picture is not a student body free from stress, but a student body free to own the stress and get help for the stress – in a way that doesn’t add more stress,” Jensen said.
Tomar said that there is still a lot of work to be done, but that the initiative has already made a significant impact within the Carolina community and beyond.
Jensen agreed. “The hope is that even if one person gets a flyer, or sees the supportive photos that we’ve posted – just one person, who would not have gotten help without exposure to the campaign – then that’s what this is all about.”