Chapel Hill News

Conference in Chapel Hill to tackle stigma around mental illness

Stig·ma (n) – a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person.

Stigma tells members in our community living with a mental illness that their illness is their fault. That they alone should fix their illness. That they can’t live a normal life. That they should hide it.

According to a Mental Health Foundation study, nine out of 10 people with mental health problems say stigma and discrimination have negatively affected their lives.

Stigma prevents people living with a mental illness from seeking or receiving the treatment, support and care they need – which can leave them feeling hopeless.

Former Carrboro Mayor and State Sen. Ellie Kinnaird has firsthand experience with mental illness and understands the struggles families face.

“There is a shame surrounding mental illness while there is no shame to physical illnesses,” she says. “Mental illness feels like a dark secret that I keep within myself and it has been with me all my life.”

“Our mental health system has been failing for 20 years or more. I heard over and over from families who don’t have care, can’t access care or can’t afford care,” she says. “It is a very serious problem. We don’t have a philosophy that says we are going to care for the mentally ill.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five adults in the United States will endure a battle with mental illness.

“A way to start breaking the stigma is to tell stories and be honest about who we are and what we struggle with,” says Miriam Fahrer, a mental health nurse practitioner who also supports loved ones with mental health issues and has experienced the effects of stigma. “I hope we can begin to speak about that without retribution or judgment. It’s that judgment thing that keeps stigma going.”

How a family copes with mental illness and its associated stigmas has weighed on Regina Cascarano from a young age.

“I am a child of a parent with a mental illness and I was made fun of in school, because I had a mom who was peculiar or bizarre. My mom really is a kind-hearted person. She, despite having her mental illness, tried being a mom in the best way she could,” Cascarano says. “Bringing awareness is the beginning of getting the proper help for people with mental illness.”

Stigma can become an internalized belief and can make a person diagnosed with a mental illness “see their lives and future as an insurmountable challenge,” says Grayson Bowen, coordinator of Brushes with Life, an integrated care program that offers art opportunities for people with mental illness. “Living with stigma can be more difficult than living with mental illness itself because society doesn’t have enough conversation about the issue.”

It is time to stand with those struggling with mental illness, identify strategies to fight the stigma, break down the legal and social barriers people living with mental illness face and recognize the role media play in promulgating negative stereotypes.

On March 31, Faith Connections on Mental Illness (FCoMI), a local nonprofit, will partner with Area Health Education Centers to host a day-long conference in Chapel Hill to stimulate discussion about mental health issues and how to combat the almost inevitable accompanying stigma. The conference will feature nationally recognized speakers, mental health experts and various breakout sessions.

FCoMI provides resources to those who need information about mental illness and works with all faith communities to welcome, support and advocate for individuals and families who are living with mental illness.

Without stigma, we can better care and support those struggling and living with mental illness in our community.

To learn more about or register for the upcoming conference please visit