Mental illness is one of the most stigmatized disorders in the United States and affects 1 in 4 Americans, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. A new campaign sponsored by the New York City Metro Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI-NYC Metro) is making strides in the battle against such stigma by educating the general public about mental illness and prompting them to “lend an ear” to those who are affected by these disorders.
“I Will Listen” is an antistigma campaign that promotes contact between those affected by psychiatric disorders and those who are not directly impacted.
“We know that people who do not turn to others for support do poorly in relation to mental health,” said Lloyd Sederer, M.D., medical director of the New York State Office of Mental Health. “This campaign offers a novel way for the public to respond to people who are mentally distressed . . . by letting those people with mental illness know that ‘I will listen.’ ”
The “I Will Listen” initiative was launched last October with two televised public-service announcements, as well as a website—www.IWillListen.org—with more than 150 videos of people who have pledged that they will listen to those who have mental illness—without judgment. The campaign is largely social-media based, with more than 2,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter who have promised to listen to those in need of support.
Michael Thompson, a former president of NAMI-NYC Metro, was featured in one of the public-service spots and shared a personal story about mental illness. “My brother committed suicide when I was a young adult,” Thompson told Psychiatric News. “It was something that was heart wrenching and that took a toll on my family.”
Thompson said that his brother was diagnosed with mental illness during a time when no one wanted to speak of such things because they did not know much about the disorder and still feared it. “The public’s ideology about mental illness is less ignorant than it was 30 years ago, but it’s hardly any more open,” he said. He acknowledged that acceptance of mental illness and people with such disorders is growing, but added that “we are still in a mode of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ Once we talk about mental illness, more people will get the care they need, and more people will recover.”
“Stigma is such a huge barrier for people receiving treatment. That’s why we believe that this antistigma campaign is so essential and powerful,” said Colleen Kane, director of development and communications at NAMI-NYC Metro.
Kane told Psychiatric News that the “I Will Listen” project has received support from other NAMI chapters including ones in Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as from the national organization. She anticipates that more NAMI chapters will jump on board in 2014. Last month the campaign received support from Sandy Hook Promise, an organization led by parents and spouses of victims of the December 14, 2012, Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Members of Sandy Hook Promise have promised that they too “will listen,” as others had listened to them during a time of great tragedy.
“ ‘I Will Listen’ is broader than mental illness. It may be for someone without a mental illness diagnosis but who has just endured a death of a family member, for example. At these times, you will need someone who will listen... so the campaign is for everyone,” Sederer emphasized.
He urged physicians to become active in the antistigma campaign so that they could in turn encourage patients and their families to join in order to ease emotional burdens and hardships that often accompany mental illness. “Nobody who is greatly distressed should go through it alone. Here is a way to help somebody turn with confidence to someone who will listen,” Sederer said. ■