Michigan's community mental health agencies take action to reduce stigma around getting care

During May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month, many Michigan CMHs are offering opportunities to take action to "stomp out stigma" that prevents Michiganders from seeking mental health care.
The #wishyouknew aims to reduce stigma around getting help for mental health.
“I’m very blunt and transparent: Stigma kills,” says Kevin Fischer, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Michigan (NAMI-MI). 

Fischer’s son Dominique, a talented three-sport athlete, was 20 when he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. 

Kevin Fischer, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Michigan“We learned really quickly how ignorant we were to mental illness treatment, but over the course of about two years, we thought we got it figured out right,” Fischer says. “The right cocktail of medications for him, his therapy. He seemed to be on an upward trajectory.” 

But when friends and family learned about the diagnosis, Fischer says, they treated Dominique differently — alienating him, blaming him, making him feel weak, even encouraging him not to believe his diagnosis. 

“He slowly withdrew from his treatment, stopped taking his medication, stopped going to therapy. It wasn't long after that, I discovered he was self-medicating with marijuana and alcohol,” Fischer says. “And unfortunately, about three months later, we lost him to suicide. So stigma is incredibly powerful.”

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 22.8 percent of U.S. adults and 49.5 percent of adolescents aged 13-18 experience some form of mental illness. Yet according to NAMI, only around half of them receive treatment. Access to insurance and mental health professionals undoubtedly plays a role, but so does stigma. 

“We make them feel like it's their fault. We make them feel like it was a choice. We make them feel like they're crazy. We make them feel inferior,” Fischer says. “We don't do that to people who are diagnosed with cancer or heart disease or diabetes. So why do we do that to a person who lives with a mental illness?”

Through his work with NAMI-MI, Fischer works to normalize conversations about mental health — and he’s not alone. Across Michigan, community mental health agencies are meeting people where they live, work, and play in order to stomp out stigma. 

#wishyouknew "You're not alone."Talk the talk, walk the walk.

“One of the positives that came out of the COVID-19 pandemic is more athletes and celebrities talk publicly about their experience with mental health or mental illness,” Fischer says. “But we have so much further to go, because unfortunately, that one shot of hearing Demi Lovato or Beyoncé, it's not enough. It needs to be a more sustainable campaign. It needs to be more mainstream. We need to make our mental health a part of our everyday conversations.”

NAMI offers an array of in-person and virtual presentations educating people about mental health. Ending the Silence, geared toward middle and high school students, features an expert who addresses misconceptions about mental health, as well as a young person sharing their own experience. Outside of NAMI, Fischer and his wife, Sonya, founded EVERYBODY-VS-STIGMA, a mental health advocacy organization offering branded apparel intended to be an affirmation and conversation-starter.

#wishyouknew "You're not weak."However, Fischer recognizes that not everyone is comfortable speaking openly about deeply personal, sometimes traumatic experiences. Another way to increase awareness is to engage in public forms of support.

During May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month, many Michigan community mental health (CMH) agencies are offering opportunities to do just that. St. Clair County CMH’s Healthy Minds Healthy Bodies Run for Recovery takes place Saturday, May 13. The North Country CMH 23rd Annual Splash of Color Fun Run & Walk for Mental Health Awareness takes place on May 20 in Petoskey. In Calhoun County, the Summit Pointe Mental Health and Wellness Walk takes place May 24. The Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan (MHFWM) hosts its annual Stomp Out Stigma 5K Walk for Mental Health on May 20. And on May 26, Sanilac County CMH is hosting Sawyer Auger’s “It’s OK to not be OK” tour stop in Sandusky.

Wish You Knew: encouraging conversation online and IRL.

“Let’s talk openly about mental health,” reads the introduction to the Wish You Knew Washtenaw Instagram account. Scrolling through the content reveals information about locally available resources, advice from area mental health practitioners, and messages of encouragement illustrated by University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design student Lauren McHale. People can join the conversation by commenting or sharing their own mental health stories using the hashtag #wishyouknew. 

The Instagram account has 981 followers and has reached more than 3,000 accounts, but it’s just one element of the Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH) Wish You Knew campaign, which is a collaboration between Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH) and Washtenaw County Public Safety and funded by the county's Mental Health Millage. By combining an interactive social media presence with community outreach, Wish You Knew aims to inspire honest conversations about mental health and direct people to available resources before they’re in crisis. 

#wishyouknew "You're not alone."“When it is a crisis time, it's so much harder to access a very already inaccessible mental health care system,” says Easheta Shah, a WCCMH public health assistant. “Systemic level change needs to happen, but this is such a great way to empower individuals at a more local level.”

At the community level, Wish You Knew has partnered with the Washtenaw Intermediate School District to create a public campaign combating stigma among families, and participated in a mental health community stakeholder panel for the University of Michigan South Asian Awareness Network. Meanwhile, their partnership with the writing-focused nonprofit Ypsi Writes helps bring the conversation about mental health into a recreational rather than a clinical space “just to promote these healthy coping mechanisms for emotional regulation,” Shah says. 

As Wish You Knew evolves and expands, Shah says the goal is to continue to create intentional partnerships with community organizations addressing vulnerable populations, particularly in rural areas and among men, boys, and communities of color.

#wishyouknew "It's not hopeless."be nice. Team: stomping out stigma on the court.

After the tragic death by suicide of Mona Shores High School senior Brennan Dethloff in 2021, athletic director Todd Conrad decided to take action. He implemented be nice. Team, a mental health and suicide prevention education initiative created by MHFWM. When he asked his staff who wanted to take on a be nice. Team, head volleyball coach Kathy Hellmann, who is also a first grade teacher and be nice. liaison at Ross Park Elementary, volunteered.

“This is such an awesome outlet to have as coaches,” Hellmann says. “It's reaching so many people that I don't think we would have necessarily thought of before.”

Hellmann says high schoolers face unrealistic expectations from teachers, friends, parents, and coaches. 

“You go from first grade where you talk about everything — your feelings, why you're mad, everything — to when you get to high school and you should be this mini-adult,” she says. “People expect them to control their feelings and be OK. And it's not that way as adults. We have bad days.”

The be nice. Team offers young athletes the tools and information they need to manage those bad days, as well as a game plan to help others who might be going through a hard time. There are journaling exercises with a mental health component as well as activities that encourage kindness — writing encouraging notes to JV and freshman teammates, surprising teachers with flowers, and Thoughtful Thursdays. Although Hellman has always emphasized the importance of communication, she says that since implementing the be nice. Team, her athletes are more willing to talk about their mental health needs. 

“You wonder,” Hellmann muses, “if we weren't talking about these things, would they have felt comfortable enough to admit and talk to me about it?”

Brooke Marshall is a freelance writer and the author of Lucky: An African Student, an American Dream, and a Long Bike Ride. You can contact her at [email protected]

#wishyouknew artwork by Lauren McHale courtesy Washtenaw County Community Mental Health.

Kevin Fischer photo by Doug Coombe.

The MI Mental Health series highlights the opportunities that Michigan's children, teens, and adults of all ages have to find the mental health help they need, when and where they need it. It is made possible with funding from the Community Mental Health Association of MichiganCenter for Health and Research TransformationGenesee Health SystemMental Health Foundation of West MichiganNorth Country CMHNorthern Lakes CMH AuthorityOnPointSanilac County CMHSt. Clair County CMHSummit Pointe, and Washtenaw County CMH.
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