Organizations Bring Change 2 Mind, Active Minds at USF fight mental-health stigma

If you met Margaret DeBellotte-Torres — an ambassador for Bring Change 2 Mind, a nonprofit organization working to reduce mental health stigma — you probably wouldn’t realize she was once a victim of it.

A few years ago, life was moving too quickly, and DeBellotte-Torres was miserable. A divorce.  A child moving out. A lost job.

“I didn’t recognize what was really happening until it got to the point of crisis,” she said of being diagnosed with clinical depression.

Working through her difficulties resulted in financial problems, and she asked a family member to let her move in.

“You better make sure you take those pills,” the relative said. “Because I don’t want you coming here going crazy on us.”

Social stigma, like the relative’s comment, refers to prejudice and discrimination toward people with mental illness. But sufferers can also experience  “perceived stigma,” according to “Mental Health and Stigma,” an article by Graham C.L. Davey, Ph.D.

Self-stigma is when the sufferer internalizes perceptions of discrimination.

Stigma leads sufferers to feel ashamed and can hurt their chances for recovery. DeBellotte-Torres said the stigma caused her to be silent about her illness, which made it worse.

“I felt like I was on an island by myself,” she said.

Finally, she started reading stories of other people, mostly celebrities, who had mental health problems, which helped her see she wasn’t the only person struggling and that it was possible to recover her health.

“They advertise how to get rid of, you know, acid reflux on television, and how to get rid of erectile dysfunction, but they don’t really emphasize how to go get help for depression,”DeBellotte-Torres said.

However, there is controversy over how to combat mental-illness stigma. Some tactics use “symbolic violence,” according to Kate Holland’s article in the June 2012 issue of Social Semiotics.

In symbolic violence, a group promotes its agenda so much it comes across as labeling others as ignorant. This results in a gentle, but invisible, violence that can turn people away from even worthy causes because people do not like the accusatory tone of the campaigns, some advocates claim.

Furthermore, some feel anti-stigma campaigns that promote words such as “crazy,” “lunatic,” and “bipolar” are offensive.  Holland said these words are so integrated into every day conversation that shaming these words is problematic. Instead of decreasing stigma, she argues it might increase discrimination because the word-shaming could be viewed as overly hostile.

At USF, the Action Minds Club is taking the approach of empowering students to speak openly about mental health.

The club plans to use social media andthe hashtag #fightagainststigma to encourage followers to post images or quotes of accurate representations or misrepresentations of mental health and replace negative posts with a positive response.

Active Minds will host workshops in the fall to educate people about mental illnesses. More information can be found on the Active Minds USF Facebook page.

Like DeBellotte-Torres, Active Minds’ president, Nevedha White, a psychology and social work junior, believes in combating ignorance.

“Because it’s so common, it only makes sense that we learn more about it so that we can treat each other with the respect that we deserve,” White said.