In December, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in partnership with the Ad Council, launched a national, multimedia public service awareness campaign designed to decrease negative attitudes concerning mental illness. One of the campaign’s fundamental strategies is to encourage young adults to support friends who are living with mental health problems.
“We took a new approach to destigmatizing mental illness with this campaign,” said Assistant Surgeon General Eric B. Broderick, SAMHSA’s acting deputy administrator. “Instead of telling people why they shouldn’t discriminate against people with mental illnesses, we are showing how friends can be supportive of those who have disclosed they are having a mental health problem and the critical role that friendship plays in recovery.”
Despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans (85 percent) believe that people with mental illnesses are not to blame for their conditions, only about one in four (26 percent) thinks that people are generally caring and sympathetic toward individuals with mental illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual survey on health orientations and practices. The survey data also found that only one-quarter of young adults believe a person affected by a mental illness can eventually recover, while slightly more than one-half (54 percent) of those who know someone with a mental illness believe that treatment can help individuals with mental illnesses lead normal lives.
“Undoubtedly, this campaign will move us, as a nation, closer to the day when the public will feel the responsibility to support and provide ready access to effective treatment and services,” Broderick said. “It will move us toward the day when we can make sure individuals, especially our young adults, are not uncomfortable seeking help.”
According to SAMHSA, in 2005, an estimated 24.6 million adults aged 18 and older experienced serious psychological distress (SPD), which is highly correlated with serious mental illness. Among 18- to 25-year-olds, the prevalence of SPD is high (18.6 percent versus 11.3 percent for all adults aged 18 and older). At the same time, this age group shows the lowest rate of help-seeking behaviors. The good news is that those in this age group with mental health conditions have a high potential for minimizing future disability if social acceptance is broadened and they receive the right support and services early on, according to SAMHSA.
“Mental illness is not something to be ashamed of,” said acting Surgeon General Kenneth Moritsugu, who helped kick off the campaign. “It is an illness that should be treated with the same urgency and compassion as any other illness. And just like any other illness, the support of friends and family members is key to recovery.”
Created pro bono by Grey Worldwide, the public service ad campaign aims to reach 18- to 25-year-olds who have friends living with mental illnesses. The campaign highlights the importance of providing support. Featuring a voiceover by Tony Award-winning actor Liev Schreiber, the television and radio spots illustrate how friendship is the key to recovery for many people struggling with a mental illness.
The campaign also includes print and interactive advertising that directs individuals to a comprehensive new website (www.whatadifference.samhsa.gov) to learn more about mental health, what role they can play in a friend’s recovery and where to find local services. The PSAs (which feature the tagline “Mental Illness: What a Difference a Friend Makes”) were distributed to more than 28,000 media outlets nationwide and will air in advertising time donated by the media.
“The prevalence of mental illness among young adults in our country is staggering,” said Peggy Conlon, president and CEO of the Ad Council. “We need to reduce the widespread stigma and provide a greater opportunity for recovery. Our research revealed that there is a great fear and a general lack of knowledge about mental illness. Therefore, we were careful not to develop advertising that would further perpetuate the stigma. Rather than focusing on the fear, we identified a key strategic message that would motivate young adults throughout the country — the power of friendship.” Conlon believes the age group targeted by the campaign can serve as a significant catalyst for the rest of the population to take action.
A personal account
The press conference in Washington, D.C., unveiling the mental health anti-stigma campaign included the poignant story of one teenager’s struggle with depression and her loyal friend’s willingness to help her out of the shadows. Cara Anthieny was hospitalized and diagnosed with major depression when she was 15. Her friend, Michaela Peace Gregory, stood by her, visited her in the hospital and eventually gave her the strength to change her life.
Anthieny’s depression began in the summer following her freshman year in high school. A series of disappointments and a broken relationship started her on a downward spiral. One of her closest friends at the time slowly pulled away from her, telling her she “talked about her problems too much.” Anthieny’s typical teen angst developed into serious depression as she began cutting herself and having thoughts of death.
“I just wanted to be alone,” Anthieny said in an interview with Counseling Today shortly after the press conference. “I stopped showering and would sleep all the time. I would hope that I just wouldn’t wake up.” She still had friends, she noted, but didn’t confide in them because she feared they would leave her if she did.
During the last week of school her sophomore year, Anthieny’s parents admitted her into a psychiatric facility. While there recovering, she not only received the services she desperately needed but also discovered the power of true friendship. “Michaela and her family drove over 100 miles to the hospital to visit me,” Anthieny said. “They brought books, candy, and we talked about everything. They stayed all afternoon. That was very important to me in my recovery. Before, I felt alone in my own world, but they showed me I wasn’t alone.”
Gregory told Counseling Today she was familiar with depression and its effects because her older sister was battling the illness as well. She decided she wanted to reach out to help her friend Anthieny just as she had helped her sister. “I just kept reminding her (Anthieny) how beautiful she was and telling her that we wanted her here, (that) she makes our lives better,” Gregory said. “I think the most important thing to remember is that people who are depressed are battling with themselves. You have to be selfless even though they may not be fulfilling the friendship.”
Anthieny has since found her voice and passion in poetry, using it as a healthy form of self-expression to release her pain. She performs her poetry in poetry slams across the nation. Both Anthieny and Gregory have graduated from high school and are attending community college. Anthieny, now 18, believes that her depression will never truly leave her. But she also believes she now has the tools and the friends to help her effectively manage her mental illness.