Attacking the stigma of mental illness, program by program

Sunday, August 21, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — What if the stigma associated with seeking mental health care could be eliminated and such a step were perceived as a sign of strength, rather than a sign of weakness?

Then, campaigns could present mental health care as just a step toward making oneself healthier, more capable, even more professional.

Sally Spencer-Thomas’ foundation is preparing to launch an education campaign in the fall that will use “menspeak” and dark humor to reach the at-risk groups.

The Carson J Spencer Foundation has also put together a program called Working Minds, which teaches businesses ways to be proactive about mental health issues. The idea is to address suicide prevention for men in the workplace the same way it was addressed for youths in schools.

Spencer-Thomas said that often, business owners and managers will take action only after something has already happened to an employee. When business owners call her foundation, they are unsure of what to do from there and wondering, “What did I miss?”

The Working Minds toolkit offers a DVD and script so workplaces can at least start conversations about suicide prevention and mental health. The goal of the program is an overall more efficient workplace, achieved with more happy, healthy workers.

By making suicide prevention and mental health commonplace in the office, the stigma around asking for help can be lessened. 

Informing workers of mental health help options available to them could also make them feel more comfortable reaching out for help.  Managers can be trained as "gatekeepers" to recognize signs of distress in workers and more effectively offer help and resources.

The program was added to the National Best Practices Registry in June 2010 and has been used with several thousand employees.

To learn more about Working Minds, go to the program's website at

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