New Coalition Aims to Eliminate Stigma of Mental Illness One Story at a Time

May 4, 2014

MILWAUKEE, Wis – A new coalition, Wisconsin Initiative for Stigma Elimination, (WISE) is working to remove the stigma of mental illness, one story at a time. The group is doing so by uniting organizations and individuals around Wisconsin to do what it knows works best to eliminate stigma – support those who have found recovery to share their stories of hope.

According to Sue McKenzie, co-facilitator of WISE and co-director of Rogers InHealth, a coalition member, “May has been designated Mental Health Month, so it is the perfect time for us to unveil this new group that has grown to 25+ organizational partners in just 18 months and to discuss the power of sharing their mental health recovery stories with the residents of Wisconsin.”

The Prevalence of Mental Illness
It has been estimated that one in four adults, approximately 61.5 million Americans, experiences mental illness in a given year.

“Even though many know that mental illnesses are more common than we used to think, far too many continue to keep their challenges a secret, as if something to feel shame about. As a result, this stigma has led to further isolation and despair rather than early access to the many options available to support recovery and create hope.”

Cammy’s Story of Living with Bipolar Disorder
Cammy is one of the people who has shared her mental health journey with WISE. Growing up in the Fox River Valley, Cammy was suicidal in high school and spent half of her senior year in the hospital. She says she eventually started cutting herself as a way to feel and see real pain instead of keeping it inside. However, that only made her situation worse.

Eventually she was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, and learned through the help of an art therapist how to cope and use more constructive behaviors to deal with her challenges.

According to Cammy, “My art therapist saved my life and showed me a positive way to release my feelings through art. She and my psychiatrist challenged me to come up with positive solutions to my problems, rather than providing me with all of the answers.”

“I learned that I enjoy art, I took art classes and I realized that I would much rather be recognized for my artwork than for negative behavior.”

Cammy says she has also learned mindfulness to cope with bipolar disorder, to breathe deeply and give herself positive affirmations. In addition, she now volunteers every two weeks at a secure detention center in Milwaukee, teaching art to men challenged by mental illness and incarcerated.

“It gives me a sense of purpose and a reason to get up in the morning,” Cammy adds. “I like giving back to the community.”

To view the video discussing Cammy’s mental health journey please visit http://rogersinhealth.org/resources/cammy.

How Sharing Stories Helps
Julianne Carbin, Executive Director of NAMI Wisconsin, a WISE partner, highlights that when people with mental health issues share their stories, it can be empowering and actually increase one’s self-esteem. It also promotes understanding, presents opportunities for support, assistance, and reasonable accommodations, or can simply relieve the stress and guilt connected to keeping a secret.

Cammy states the decision to go public with her story was difficult, but that ultimately it was liberating to give insight and understanding to people living with or affected by others with bipolar.

“It also felt great to hear my mom say she was proud of me for sharing my story after she viewed my video.”

McKenzie adds that we all need to work together to eliminate stigma.

“Start by seeking out people with lived mental health experiences and listen to their stories. Reinforce and support their resilience and recovery.”

“Wear lime green, the color designated for mental health awareness, and be prepared to share recovery stories where you work or at the school you attend, and in the civic and religious organizations you belong to.”

“Together we can make a difference and eliminate the stigma that people have been living with for far too long.”

WISE is co-facilitated by Sue McKenzie and Suzette Urbashich, co-directors of Rogers InHealth. Members include: Access to Independence; Care Connections – Waukesha; Center for Suicide Awareness; COPE Services - Ozaukee County; Dry Hootch; Faith Partnership Network; Grassroots Empowerment Project; LaCrosse Mental Health Coalition; Latino Health Coalition; Marian University; MHA Wisconsin; Milwaukee Center for Independence; Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division; NAMI WI and multiple local affiliates; North East WI Mental Health Connection; OCD Wisconsin, affiliate of IOCDF-International OCD Foundation; Prevent Suicide WI and multiple local affiliates; Racine Collaborative for Children’s Mental Health; Rogers InHealth of Rogers Behavioral Health System; University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Madison, and Eau Claire ; Walker's Point Clinic and Core El Centro; WI Certified Peer Specialist Network; WI Department of Health Services; WI Family Ties; WI Hospital Association; and Wisconsin United for Mental Health.

For more information on WISE visit www.EndStigmaTogether.org. To view more stories visit: http://rogersinhealth.org/resources/stories . To discuss how your workplace, school, congregation or you can become a potential partner or to learn how you can share your story with WISE, please contact Sue McKenzie at smckenzie@rogershospital.org or 414-759-3374.

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