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"I wish parents knew that mental health is real,” says one #wishyouknew social media post beside a portrait of a local teen. Another says, "Don't talk at me or down to me, talk with me.”
The Wish You Knew campaign, funded by Washtenaw County’s Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage, is designed to combat stigma around mental health among youth, parents, and educators.
With increasing concern about teen mental health nationwide, creating resources and enhancing access for youth is essential. But too often stigma or lack of knowledge prevents youth from accessing the support they need.
With millage funds, several Washtenaw County organizations are working to reduce mental health stigma by starting conversations, sharing resources, and making youth feel heard.
Replacing 'the whisper network' with trust and trusted resources
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the nation’s largest grassroots mental health advocacy organization, has a local chapter in Washtenaw County: NAMI-WC. “[NAMI-WC’s] whole aim is around not only providing support, but reducing stigma related to mental illness,” says Lisa Gentz, millage initiative program administrator for Washtenaw County Community Mental Health. “So they were a natural partner when we realized that we wanted to focus on stigma.”
With millage funding, NAMI-WC listened to people from traditionally underserved areas of Washtenaw County, arranging key informant interviews with community leaders, focus groups with youth, and a clergy conference with 30 faith leaders.
The overwhelming finding from these conversations was that people in underserved communities need more access to information about available resources--and that the organizations providing this information need to earn the community’s trust.
To meet this need, NAMI-WC is now developing a peer-written and user-centered resource booklet for the underserved regions of Washtenaw County. The booklet will focus on addressing barriers to care for communities that “have been let down by the medical system,” says Maria Alfonso, project manager of NAMI-WC.
In addition to listing providers’ fee models and experience with diverse clientele, the booklet will include bus routes, larger fonts, education on mental health language, and other features to improve accessibility.
“It’s the guide I would want my loved ones to have if I wasn’t around to help”, says Alfonso.
Combating stigma to get these resources into the community can save lives, says Judy Gardner, executive director of NAMI-WC.
Gardner believes she was able to navigate the mental health crisis of a family member because of the support and education offered by NAMI-WC.
“NAMI was life changing for me and my family at a time when almost no one was talking about mental illness. I was fortunate enough to have a friend who referred me to NAMI but there are still many families and individuals who are stuck without resources in the ‘whisper network’ created by mental health stigma.”
Youth want to know about resources
While NAMI-WC spoke with community leaders, Wish You Knew, a millage-funded initiative to reduce mental health stigma among youth, communicated with youth. “We've been putting ad spots out on television, Spotify, billboards, and more,” says Kara Semanision, coordinator of the Wish You Knew campaign.
“We commissioned 22 images from a community-based artist of community members,” says Semanision.
In addition to the portrait, campaign imagery includes “quotes from the portrait subjects or from other involved community members about what they wish someone knew about mental health. It can be hopeful things like ‘wish you knew I want to help’ or it can be things that are weighing heavily on people's minds.”
Some Wish You Knew Instagram posts read, “I’m not ‘bad’”, “10 deep breaths won’t fix it”, and “Support isn’t only for a crisis”.
“One of the major accomplishments [of the millage] is how much the Wish You Knew campaign resonated with youth in our community,” said Gentz.
During the pandemic, Wish You Knew saw an increase in engagement and reach of over 100% in some areas. A Spotify ad reached 35,695 unique listeners, and ten billboards across the county reached an estimated 900,000.
Examining these interactions, Wish You Knew leaders have come to a similar conclusion as NAMI: Youth want more information.
“The posts that get the most interaction for us are posts about community resources,” Semanision shares.
“Kids don't feel comfortable using mental health resources if they don't know what it's going to look like - how much information their parents are going to hear about them using it, if they're going to be able to pay for it on their own, or how they can get there."
Semanision and others are now putting together educational resources to let youth know what that interaction might look like.
Recent posts include "What is group therapy? An introduction to group therapy practices, benefits, and considerations" and "Where can I find support? A quick guide to some of the free or low cost mental health services in Washtenaw County". These posts have high share and engagement rates among youth across the county..
“We've been trying to address stigma around seeking services in that way,” Semanision continues. “I think it's equally important to get people to the resources as it is to spread the word that other people are thinking the same things as you. There has been a shift towards empowerment through education.”
Empowering schools to have conversations about mental health
While Wish You Knew connected with youth online and in the community, the millage also empowered students and educators to tackle mental health stigma with mini grants for Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) schools.
In the 2019-2020 school year, says Shannon Novara, program manager for WISD community and school partnerships, we required that projects focused on stigma and culminated in a campaign.” But the campaign week was set to start on March 15, just as schools were shutting down due to concerns about COVID-19 transmission.
“With the unpredictability this year, the goal was to be flexible and to allow school staff to meet the needs of their school,” Novara says. “We wanted counselors and social workers to use the money how they thought would best support the mental health needs of their students.”
Gentz added that this year the campaigns “had an overall spirit of creating connectedness when we were all disconnected by COVID.” As for the projects, Gentz says “each district has really taken their own spin on it.”
“Clague Middle School is building a mental health library,” Novara shares. “They purchased electronic licenses for books so that they could offer them to kids while they're remote.”
Pioneer High School screened almost all of their students for academic and behavioral health needs, and identified some students the school hadn’t known were struggling. They followed up with students and parents and “[school leaders] are ecstatic with the results that they've gotten,” says Novara.
Whitmore Lake High School started a student-run Instagram account that the students “absolutely love,” says Amanda Henderson, school social worker, whose caseload has doubled this year. “I’ve gotten stopped in the hallway probably once a week by a student who says, ‘I think I need to talk to you.’”
Students are now asking for Henderson’s help researching papers on mental health and telling her they wondered what anxiety and depression were. “A lot of students have said, ‘I didn’t know what supports there were and I didn’t know, other than you, who I could talk to.’”
Overall, the WISD mini grants have “really empowered school staff to do some things that they have always wanted to do but didn’t know how to make happen,” says Novara.
More work to be done to reach youth facing multiple stigmas
Another aspect of the 2020-2021 WISD mini grants was a focus on engaging vulnerable populations of students who typically don’t participate in mental wellness activities.
“Maybe they’re freshmen, students of color, or LGBTQ students,” Novara explains. “There were some schools that did that in interesting ways that I didn't predict, like partnering with the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).”
NAMI-WC’s conversations revealed that youth especially are more open to therapy with people who look like them. The booklet NAMI is developing will highlight 15 African American providers in Ypsilanti and Whitmore Lake.
Going forward, Wish You Knew will focus on addressing stigma among African American boys and young men. They plan to create “targeted campaign materials for those parts of our community that are facing multiple stigmas or whose community connects to mental health resources differently than some of the traditional systems,” says Gentz.
Empowering youth to reach out
To connect youth to millage resources, all of the anti-stigma campaigns described in this story promote the WCCMH’s 24/7 CARES hotline, a resource for anyone in the county with mental health questions.
“If you've got a question of how to talk to a friend about something that's going on, they can help you with that,” says Semanision of Wish You Knew. “And they can also provide you with referrals to a therapist or psychiatrist.”
The Washtenaw County Health Department has been promoting the CARES number “especially among youth who might not be able to seek help through traditional channels,” says Semanision, “because reduced medical autonomy among young people can make accessing necessary care difficult.”
NAMI-WC is also featuring the CARES number in its resource booklet and bus advertisements, and the WISD mini grant schools promote the number in resources, campaigns, and yard signs.
“There's still some stigma among school folks that the CARES number is only for people who have Medicaid, which it's not,” says Novara of WISD. “Or that it’s the number you call in a crisis, which it is, but it can be used for other reasons.”
Novara encourages parents to call anytime, especially if they're concerned about depression or suicidal ideation.
“We’ve unfortunately worked with way too many families who say, ‘If I would have only known my son was going through something like this, it could have been lifesaving for them and for our family,’” says Gentz.
“I would love to get us to that point where these conversations are a normal part of our lives.”