Photo by Ethan Castro (He/him)
Within the Illinois Tech Lewis College of Human Science’s psychology department, there exists a subdivision of faculty and students in a program known as counseling and rehabilitation service. This program held an event titled the Stigma and Recovery Symposium on Thursday, March 21 on the third floor of the Tech Central building.
As the name of the event implies, this event and its speakers centered around discussion of stigma within the area of mental health. Mental health stigma can be thought of as the negative connotations and ensuing prejudice towards individuals with mental health conditions or even simply want to discuss such matters.
Whether it be due to prevailing cultural beliefs, social norms, or other external (or even internal) thought patterns, mental health stigma oftentimes makes it difficult for individuals in need of mental health treatment to find or even discuss their conditions, as they find themselves with dismissive or even hostile responses. Forums such as this symposium represent a vital step towards fighting back against these stigmas and normalizing conversations about mental health and its treatment, the same as any other health condition.
The forum began with an introduction by Distinguished Professor of Psychology Patrick Corrigan, a leading scholar in the field of mental health stigma. He then invited the first of many individuals that day to discuss their personal lived experience with mental health stigma, Sonya Ballentine. Ballentine discussed how her personal experience with mental health stigma from her family led to her having to always remain “hyper vigilant and never able to relax,” as she continued to struggle with a long history of mental health issues. After this long struggle, she is currently proud to once again see herself as a productive member of society, encouraged to turn her experience towards helping others in similar positions by managing a weight loss intervention program for African Americans with mental illness at Illinois Tech.
Three more speakers were then invited to present on their lived experiences with mental health struggles and stigma. Julius Mercer, a former Olympic qualifier, gave his personal story of struggling with psychotic episodes and a suicide attempt and how he is driven to now advocate against stigma. Jacque Elder and Paul Williams gave similar personal stories, detailing their individual histories with hospitalizations and the internal fear that mental health stigma instilled within them throughout their lives and how they now dedicate themselves to fighting against these same harmful beliefs.
Turning the symposium towards a more research-oriented direction, Illinois Tech research intern Nash Azizz gave a presentation on his research into mental health stigma in his home country of Ghana. He gave particular attention to how various cultural and spiritual beliefs in the country lead to a reinforced lack of general knowledge on mental health issues. As he put it, discussions and acknowledgement of mental health issues are much more difficult to have when said issues are much more likely to be dismissed on religious or other ideological grounds. Thus, he concluded that stronger considerations of the roles of culture and beliefs need to guide future efforts to address mental health stigma at both the local community and mass media levels.
The next three presentations centered around various organizations dedicated to mental health service and support. Mehak Hafeez, an Illinois Tech graduate student, discussed her role as the chapter president of the Illinois Tech branch of Active Minds, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness of mental health among college-age students. Under Hafeez, Illinois Tech’s Active Minds branch has brought in numerous motivational speakers, workshops, resource sharing opportunities, networking events, and movie screenings.
In a similar vein, Liron David gave a brief overview of Enosh, an Israeli organization that advocates and lobbies for the rights of individuals with psycho-social disabilities with services such as housing assistance, social and leisure opportunities, employment and professional training, family counseling, advocacy, and planning.
The final organization presentation was by Robert Skrocki and was about his role in the Interfaith Coalition. He discussed the companionship trainings and groups to help individuals struggling with mental health challenges find solace in an intersection of faith and support. He was quick to make a distinction between what he sees as “life-diminishing ideologies” and “life-affirming spirituality,” hearkening back to Azizz’s earlier presentation. Through the Interfaith Coalition, Skrocki looks to help individuals find a semblance of hope and meaning in an inclusive and supportive spiritual community.
Shifting once more to a more research-oriented presentation, Carol Hundert from Loyola University then discussed her experience with Honest, Open, Proud (HOP), a series of peer-led group intervention sessions to help reduce mental health stigma among its participants. In addition she discussed her more recent adaptation of HOP for college students (HOP-C) and the challenges that come with this new population, including finding ways to reach out to more students, helping students facing challenges with multiple personal identities, and possible integration of social media and other digital mediums.
After a catered lunch and networking opportunity, another series of lived experience presentations was held by Jamie Eskridge, LaToya Glover, and Cheryl Metcalf. Like the previous series of lived experience speakers, all three gave their deeply personal stories of struggling with mental health issues and related topics such as drug addiction and familial strife, and all three stood before the audience affirmed in their resolve to fight against mental health stigma.
Arryn Guy and Wren Yoder then presented on another research topic they had been working on: their work in investigating stigma among African Americans living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and serious mental illness (SMI). More specifically, their study looked to explore the association between stigma, adherence, and interpersonal coping, such as seeking out emotional support.
Another Illinois Tech student, Binoy Shah, then gave his research presentation on the interplay between stigma and criminalization. He examined and discussed the various ways in which stereotypes and stigmas muddle the interactions between law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and individuals with mental health illnesses.
The final aspect of the symposium was a lived experience panel consisting of Charlotte Chan, Chris White, Kathleen Powers, Miriam Smith, Hafeez, and Ballentine. Together, these six answered a series of questions (both pre-prepared and from the audience) including how mental health stigma has affected them both in the past and present, what society can do to lessen the effects of stigma, the effects of their home cultures on how mental health is viewed, and what the best-case scenarios for mental health education would look like.
To conclude, this symposium saw an equal amount of personal stories and scholarly research all focused on having serious, heartfelt conversations about the tangible effects of mental health issues on everyday life, and how we as a society can actually facilitate these conversations, end the stigma around them, and treat such issues with the gravity they deserve.
Photo by Ethan Castro (He/him)