Last summer's White House Conference on Mental Health issued a challenge: The nation must find ways to reduce the stigma of mental illness. This year, APA and MTV are answering that challenge by providing expertise for a public awareness campaign supported by Tipper Gore to fight the stigma of mental health problems among young people.

The five-year program--launched at a June 7 press conference--seeks to change Americans' fundamental perceptions and attitudes about mental illness.

"We cannot discriminate just because the illness happens to emanate from the brain, which is part of the human body, a part of the human condition," said Tipper Gore, announcing the campaign at the press conference. "But apparently we have to educate people about that."

Gore sought to work with APA on the campaign in light of the success the association has had with the "Warning Signs" campaign against youth violence, a joint project APA carried out with MTV.

APA was responsible for developing the content for the campaign brochure, available in both print and web versions. The brochure discusses mental health problems experienced by teens and young adults and offers advice on getting help. A series of brief stories illustrate how young people with problems such as panic and eating disorders, as well as severe depression, can improve and recover by getting professional treatment.

"With APA as acknowledged experts in the field, we were confident the materials would be appropriate and clinically correct," says Al Guida, executive director of the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign (NMHAC), the organization created by the White House to carry out the effort. "Also, APA is unusual among the discipline-type organizations in the field in the amount of staff and resources it devotes to public awareness of mental health issues."

The campaign's specific goals include increasing access to health care for people with mental disorders and decreasing discrimination against them in jobs and housing.

The partners in the effort include the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offices of the U.S. Surgeon General's Office, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Private partners include the Ad Council, MTV, several corporations and some private individuals.

"Never before has an anti-stigma public service initiative used modern mass communication techniques over a sustained period of time," says Guida.

He has high hopes for the campaign, noting that over the last few decades public education has minimized the fearsome stigma once associated with cancer--this campaign, he says, aims to do the same for mental disorders.

Helping teens get help

The campaign's outreach to a young adult audience has already begun: 60-second announcements, developed by MTV, on television stations MTV, MTV2, VH1 and Nickelodeon feature brief portraits of young people in the midst of mental health problems, who urge the audience to "Change your mind about mental health."

The combined viewing audience of the four television networks is reported at 75 million people--60 percent of them under age 20. All four networks have pledged to run at least three spots--developed with the help of ethnically diverse focus groups--repeatedly over upcoming months.

The spots direct viewers to an 800 number, and callers receive a brochure developed by APA reflecting focus groups with young people and the expertise of several APA members who collaborated on content development. That pamphlet--Change Your Mind About Mental Health: A Get-Help Guide for Teens And Young Adults--underscores that it is "not uncommon for teen-agers to develop problems with their mental health" and notes that one in five teens has some type of mental health problem in any given year.

The brochure also discusses mental health problems common in young people, including depression, panic disorders and eating disorders, and offers advice on ways to get help.

"First step: Reach out to people you trust," recommends the brochure. "Think of all the people you can turn to for support--people who are concerned about you and can help comfort you, who will listen to you and encourage you, and who can help arrange for treatment."

APA members may call APA's public education campaign toll-free number, (800) 964-2000, to receive free copies of the Change Your Mind About Mental Health brochure. The general public may receive free copies of the brochure by calling (877) 495-0009 or may view or download the brochure by logging on to www.NoStigma.org.

Future outreach

The campaign is also seeking to obtain air time for public service announcements on broadcast television, radio and billboards. In future years, the campaign plans to move into other forms of public education, such as:

  • The news and entertainment media: "In most cases," says Guida, "mental illness is only covered in the news in the context of extremely violent acts by mentally ill people. And these media images reinforce the stigma." To counter that one-sided coverage, the partnership seeks to educate editors and reporters on mental illness and work toward anti-stigma messages in entertainment programming.

  • Community efforts: To fortify the anti-stigma message, the partnership may sponsor forums and other community-based efforts to discuss the ramifications of stigma and possible solutions.

  • Research: The partnership may sponsor research on stigma to counter prejudicial attitudes--among politicians, insurance companies, housing authorities, employers and others.

Building on APA's model

The anti-stigma campaign flows from APA's team effort with MTV on the "Warning Signs" campaign against youth violence. That continuing effort includes an MTV documentary co-produced with APA entitled "Warning Signs," a "Warning Signs" guide, and an 800 number and Web site address (helping.apa.org) for requesting free copies of the guide about preventing youth violence.

Due to the overwhelming success of the "Warning Signs" campaign--there have been more than one-half million hits to the online version of the guide and nearly 500,000 copies of the guide distributed--a similar model has been employed for the anti-stigma campaign.

APA's prior work with MTV has given the association valuable experience in communicating with teens--experience that has proved essential to developing the anti-stigma campaign for young adults.

"Through the 'Warning Signs' campaign, we were able to successfully communicate difficult, complicated messages about the warning signs of violence and causes of violent behavior in a way that teens can understand and use," says Russ Newman, PhD, JD, executive director for practice. "With the anti-stigma campaign and MTV's help, we are able to use that experience to create messages that are appropriate and helpful for teens."

APA believes that this campaign fulfills an important need among adolescents. "As our research has shown, most people don't know when to seek help from a psychologist or licensed mental health professional, even in cases of very obvious problems," says Newman. "Adolescents are no different in that regard. In fact, they may be even more vulnerable because they are notoriously independent and the prospect of having to ask for help can be even more daunting for them."

APA's Practice Directorate gratefully acknowledges the following members who contributed to the Change Your Mind About Mental Health brochure: Barry S. Anton, PhD, University of Puget Sound; Lanny Berman, PhD, American Association of Suicidology; Molly Brunk, PhD, Virginia Commonwealth University; Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD, Judge Baker Children's Center, Boston; Michele Harway, PhD, Phillips Graduate Institute, Encino, Calif.; Diane T. Marsh, PhD, University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg; Melba J.T. Vasquez, PhD, Independent Practice, Austin, Texas; Karen Zager, PhD, Independent Practice, New York.