Why Have Students Do Stigma Buster Projects?

When I describe my Movies & Madness class to people I am often met with two kinds of concerns: scepticism about the academic rigor of the class and the impossibility of students changing deeply held negative beliefs and attitudes in the space of a semester. The first concern?  Ask the students; I’m a wicked grader.  As for the second concern, I believe that faculty too often underestimate the capacity of students to grow when provided with the opportunity to do so. Sometimes the changes I see are dramatic.  The beauty of it is that there isn’t a single thing that I say during the class that brings about these changes. It’s the students’ own actions that transform them.

Of all of their assignments, I typically see the greatest changes in attitudes coming from the Stigma Buster Project. The purpose of these projects is to educate the campus and wider community concerning issues of mental illness and its treatment, communicate to the campus and wider community about the degree of misinformation that surrounds us concerning mental illness and its treatment and encourage members of the campus community to develop more accurate and mindful perceptions of people with mental illnesses.

P2P Recovery Group cutting the ribbon to start the walk.

This year, students had the opportunity to participate in an awareness and fundraising walk supporting the local NAMI affiliate as their stigma buster.  One student’s essay describing her experience at the walk exemplifies the true spirit of the stigma buster process. I will share some of her reflection essay here.

The purpose of the walk was to raise awareness about mental health along with “busting” any stigmas attached to mental illness. The reason that I chose this as my stigma buster project is because I am actively involved in many awareness walks throughout the year. I have never been to a mental health awareness walk, however, and I wanted to see how it compared with other walks.

To my surprise, it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.

Upon realizing this, I set a goal for myself to never look at a person who has a mental illness in a negative way again. I attempted to obtain this goal throughout the rest of the walk.

Throughout the walk, I never got a chance to see anyone other than the group of people who were in my class. It was not until we got back to the banquet hall that I realized how friendly and excited everyone was about the event. As soon as we walked in the door, everyone started cheering and congratulating us on the completion of the walk. After grabbing a bottle of water, I noticed someone had a small puppy he was holding. I decided to walk over to the man holding it and ask if I could pet it. In an everyday situation, a person would gladly say “yes”; however, this man actually allowed me to hold the puppy. 

After petting her and asking the man the basic facts about the dog, I realized which sign was around his neck: recovering from a mental illness. Although this event may not seem to be extraordinary, it had a big impact on me.

I realized that, although it is a difficult task to accomplish, it is important to get rid of every stigma attached to mental illnesses. Just because a person has a mental illness does not mean they are inhuman. The man who had the puppy was one of the nicest individuals I have ever met, and I would never want a person to describe him in a negative way simply because he had a mental illness.

I looked past his illness in that moment and realized how great of a person he was. Not only was he friendly towards me, but he was busting every stigma that could have been attached to him merely by being himself. After this project, I look forward to going on many more walks for mental health awareness and hope that I can in some way help this community grow.

What I see in this essay is a young person willing to own the stereotypes she had when she walked in the door. I was there and saw the looks of concern and discomfort on many of the faces of the students who chose to come out on a very wet and very cold Saturday morning for a class assignment. They stuck close to one another while waiting for the walk to begin.  Those of you familiar with NAMI know that we are a friendly and dedicated bunch. It wasn’t long before my students became targets for conversion by the faithful.

What I also see in this essay is that the simplest of human interactions can take a person a million miles away from where she started in a short period of time. She began the morning with the full range of inaccurate media-borne images shaping her expectations for those she would encounter. Recognize that we had already watched and unpacked two films (Shutter Island and Girl, Interrupted) giving us considerable exposure to the stereotypes typically attached to people with mental illness in the media. We had also walked through a lecture describing the stigma process in detail. Still, her stereotypes were relatively intact.

If I didn’t know the research literature in this area, I would quit now and declare myself a terrible teacher. I know, however, that the single most powerful way to change attitudes about people with mental illness is through personal interactions (see for example, Corrigan & O’Shaughnessy, 2007). As a result, it doesn’t surprise me that my brilliant presentations have less impact than a walk in a park and a chat about a dog. I know that it is these casual, natural interactions centered on a common goal that have the greatest ability to change hearts and minds.  Having a puppy around never hurts either.

Corrigan, P. W., & O’Shaughnessy, J. R. (2007). Changing mental illness stigma as it exists in the real world. Australian Psychologist, 42(2), 90–97.

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About Tammy Daily

I am a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Mount Union. My training is as a Social Psychologist and I study the impact of negative images of people with mental illness in the mass media. I have been teaching a class since 2004 called Movies and Madness which examines the ways in which people with mental illness and mental health care providers are presented in the mass media.

Posted on November 30, 2011, in Blog, Course Posts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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