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Massachusetts Aims To Reduce Stigma Around Mental Health

Official Seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts

State Attorney General’s office press release (PRF)

Massachusetts will provide $8 million to 22 organizations offering mental and behavioral health services.

State Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office announced the Behavioral Health Grant program Tuesday. In a statement, Coakley says part of the effort is to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and substance abuse. With a two-year, $265,000 grant, the National Alliance on Mental Illness Massachusetts is launching an anti-stigma campaign. The organization has 20 chapters spread across the commonwealth. Laurie Martinelli is executive director.

“Stigma is the number one challenge NAMI faces in this field of mental illness,” Martinelli said. “Stigma surrounds the person who has the mental illness or substance abuse and may affect their ability to get treatment. So some people don’t want to get treatment so that is one facet of stigma. Stigma also can affect family members. Family members may not want to disclose that they have a family member with mental illness or substance abuse because society judges them so harshly.”

Videos will capture 200 personal stories of people who have experienced mental illness and its affects. Modeled after an effort last year by NAMI of Metro New York City, a separate website will be set up and additional videos will run on public television stations across the state. Here’s Martinelli.

“We hope the impact is by talking about stigma, which is really another word for discrimination, people will be able to overcome it and won’t be as hesitant to talk about the mental illness that they are dealing with themselves or with a family member,” said Martinelli.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that one in four adults, approximately 58 million Americans, experience a mental health disorder in a given year. The World Health Organization has reported that four of the 10 leading causes of disability in the U.S. and other developed nations are mental disorders. Martinelli says mental illness and substance abuse are unlike many other diseases because those affected believe they did something to cause it.

“Parents who we work with often times come with a lot a guilt that ‘If only they had done this’ their son or daughter wouldn’t have mental illness,” Martinelli explained. “Of course that’s ridiculous because mental illness is a biological brain disorder. It’s not anything that any parent or anyone did or didn’t do.”

Dr. Alex Sabo chairs the psychiatry department at Berkshire Medical Central. He says when he was in medical school in the early 1980s; about 8 percent of his class was entering the field. Today it’s only about 2 percent, so more and more primary care doctors handle mental illness cases.

“I think a combination of probably some stigma in the society about mental illness and substance abuse as well as some of the economic formulas that have been used to address reimbursement have probably led fewer people to go into the field,” said Sabo.

The AG’s office awarded Pittsfield-based Berkshire Health Systems $500,000 to connect care providers and patients via a telepsychiatry network in rural Berkshire County. Sabo says about 12,000 people are seen by the county’s mental health doctors and organizations each year.

“With the telepsychiatry we will using it with some clinician on site in another part of the county who with then present a patient or client they are working to a doctor, it could be a clinical psychologist here, and the three of them could have a conversation,” explained Sabo.

The program uses money recovered by the state through a 2013 settlement with Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, resulting from illegal marketing charges.

Listen to an interview about this program on WAMC Northeast Public Radio