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Anyone can be part of the solution to eliminate mental health stigma

Anyone can be part of the solution to eliminate mental health stigma

Four years after the tragic shooting in our community, it keeps on happening—in Aurora, in Newtown, in Santa Barbara. We feel helpless as we read the headlines again and again. But we don’t have to.

Just as you don’t have to be a doctor to learn CPR, you don’t have to be a doctor to learn how to help someone in psychological distress.

Out of the Tucson tragedy came a 90-minute training to do just that: Mental Health Safe Space: Know the Facts, Learn the Signs, Provide Help. It is free and open to the public and shows participants how to de-escalate crisis situations. Participants receive wallet-size cards with emergency and local resource information.

Its bigger goal is to eliminate stigma.

Surveys show that around one fifth of adults experience mental illness in any given year. Yet, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that nearly two-thirds of all people with a diagnosable mental illness do not seek treatment because of lack of knowledge, fear of disclosure and rejection of friends.

Ignorance and fear create stigma, which not only leads to individuals not seeking treatment, it also hinders an effective community response.

When Ben’s Bells, the organization whose mission is to inspire people to be kind, opened an office in downtown Tucson, the staff encountered people in distress who wandered in from the street. But they didn't know what to do. Should they call the police? But these people weren’t criminals. Who SHOULD they call? How could they help someone who was difficult to talk to but obviously needed help?

Mental Health Safe Space exists because Jeannette Maré, the founder and executive director of Ben’s Bells, brought her staff's dilemma to the Stigma Elimination Task Force, a group of concerned individuals and organizations who were looking for a way to change the culture of stigma in our community following the shooting.

As a member of the task force, I've led some trainings. The response has been tremendous. More than 450 individuals have attended one of the 35 trainings offered since February, 2014. Ten of Tucson’s most prominent downtown businesses have held private trainings for their staff, and more than 20 other businesses have been represented at public trainings.

The training points out that, like physical illness, mental illness exists on a continuum: from mild to acute, temporary to chronic. The training also dispels the myth that people with mental illnesses are prone to violence. In reality, the severely mentally ill are two and half times more likely to be attacked, raped, or mugged than the general population, according to researchers at North Carolina State University and Duke University.

We want to keep people in mental crisis safe from harm as well as keep our community safe.

What started with people wanting to respond to the January 8th shooting by attacking a root cause of the tragedy has become a movement—look for the “Stigma Free Zone” stickers in downtown storefront windows. Join the movement and be part of the solution.

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