“I Will Listen”: How Social Media Can Diminish the Stigma of Mental Illness

A campaign gets users of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media to act as a support group

One in four people will suffer from mental illness at some point in their lifetimes, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Yet often these individuals conceal their difficulties from friends, co-workers, family health professionals and others who could offer help.

When the New York City chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI–NYC) decided to investigate this phenomenon, they found that fear of being stigmatized—resulting in part from beliefs that individuals with mental illness are unpredictable or dangerous—was keeping many people silent. Teaming up with marketing company JWT New York, they designed the “I Will Listen” campaign in an effort to help break through these misconceptions.

The idea is simple: people pledge on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Vimeo to listen to and support individuals struggling with mental illness. “This can let people know ahead of time that you are there for them,” says NAMI–NYC development and communications director Colleen Kane. In effect, the goal is to turn an online social network into a resource for finding colleagues with whom one can safely confide.

Since its inception in 2013 hundreds of people have posted their personal experiences with mental illness. On October 2, when the campaign celebrates its one-year anniversary, it will have garnered more than 12,000 pledges with the hashtag #IWillListen. The digital buzz has inspired multiple on-the-ground events. Several college campuses have organized a “day without headphones” to indicate their willingness to hear out peers in need. And in the first citywide event, Philadelphia held a daylong mental health fair in June that inspired hundreds of participants to make video pledges.

NAMI–NYC’s efforts coincide with research findings that suggest the need to address the discrimination and stereotypes associated with mental illness is growing. “This stigma is as bad as it was [20 years ago], if not getting worse,” says Illinois Institute of Technology psychologist Patrick Corrigan.

The contemporary focus on mental health in terms of biology has led many people to abandon the outdated notion that these illnesses are “someone’s fault.” Unfortunately, this idea has been replaced by the belief that mental illnesses are at root incurable brain disorders, which intensifies the fear surrounding them. Consequently, Corrigan explains, people with mental illness face discrimination when seeking employment, housing and care. In this October’s Psychological Science in the Public Interest he and his colleagues at Emory University and at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York report stigma reduces the chance a person will look for and obtain medical help.

Fortunately, there are ways to counteract these problems. Corrigan’s work has revealed that the most powerful way to overcome people’s prejudice is via contact, which is where approaches such as “I Will Listen” could be especially effective. In addition, he and his colleagues have developed the “Coming Out Proud” program to teach people strategies for sharing their stories with others. His investigation thus far suggests that people who have experienced mental illness and no longer hide their stories carry less negative feelings about themselves and their difficulties.

According to NAMI–NYC’s Kane, the “I Will Listen” campaign is meant to complement these “coming out” approaches. “One in four Americans may experience some form of mental illness,” Kane says. “But four in four people can participate and make a difference.”

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