New mental illness stigma program at IU supported by star power, network science

Sept. 11, 2014


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A team of students, researchers and administrators at Indiana University Bloomington has launched the College Toolbox Project. This unique, student-driven initiative is designed to encourage students with mental health issues to get the help they need by reducing the stigma of mental illness at college campuses across the country.

Organizers of this organic, science-based program think they have a winning combination. The College Toolbox Project is supported by the passion of anti-stigma activist and acclaimed actress Glenn Close; the energy and openness of the millennial generation; and the research skills of a team of IU faculty members, including sociology professor Bernice Pescosolido, who is highly regarded for her stigma research.

Her research has found that stigma toward people living with mental illness exists around the world, not just in the U.S. In a study published in 2013, she identified a common "backbone" of prejudice that unfairly paints people with conditions such as depression and schizophrenia as undesirable for close personal relationships and positions of authority.

Stigma can be a major obstacle to effective treatment for people who experience these devastating illnesses. It can produce discrimination in employment, housing, medical care and social relationships, and have a negative impact on the quality of life for these individuals and their families and friends. On college campuses, stigma can reduce the effectiveness of student services; prevent students from advocating for their needs; and cause severe delays in seeking help, which could lead to drastic results, suicide among them.

And while research has identified the existence and effects of stigma, solutions are in short supply. Close, through her international anti-stigma foundation Bring Change 2 Mind, is looking to IU for help with her foundation's new U Bring Change 2 Mind, geared toward college students.

"IU Bloomington is the ideal place for the creation and development of Glenn Close's inspired program for teaching students how to help other students to reach out for the help they need in dealing with mental health issues," said IU Bloomington Provost and Executive Vice President Lauren Robel. "Working with faculty researchers and the Bring Change 2 Mind foundation, our students are embarking on a challenge that will benefit their peers throughout the nation."

Susan Barnett, a doctoral student at the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington, is managing the pilot project. She and volunteers began a push for baseline data by handing out gift bags during Welcome Week activities to freshmen who filled out a survey. This effort will continue through September.

"Students have the opportunity to leave a legacy at IU by participating in the events, campaigns, courses and activities of the U Bring Change 2 Mind program," Barnett said. "Further, students who participate in the College Toolbox Project survey will help determine what works and what doesn't."

Planning for the project began in November during a campus visit by Close and Pamela Harrington, the executive director of Bring Change 2 Mind. They visited as part of the College of Arts and Sciences' Themester, an annual, semester-long collection of events and programs that focus on one issue. Last year the theme was "Connectedness: Networks in a Complex World."

"Research is showing that interactions and networks that include people who have mental illness are promising avenues for lowering levels of prejudice and discrimination," Pescosolido said.

The College Toolbox pilot project has multiple moving parts. An integrated team of IU researchers, Bring Change 2 Mind leadership and IU Bloomington administrators will provide a logistical foundation for the project. Students provide the creative force behind how anti-stigma messages are shared with IU Bloomington students. The success of these activities will be assessed and, if effective, will be included in the "toolbox," which Bring Change 2 Mind will share at no cost with other universities.

"Students have been involved with the program from the very beginning," said Pescosolido, who chairs the international advisory council for Close's foundation. "They have to be for the program to be successful, for the students to have ownership and to offer that critical population understanding that is necessary for stigma reduction."

Beginning in the spring, Pescosolido, Distinguished Professor and Chancellor's Professor of Sociology, will teach a related course that will provide mentoring opportunities for students who want to become involved in the initiative.

"We have a long way to go," she said, "but we are so grateful to have the opportunity to leverage scientific knowledge in the hopes of shedding light on how to improve the lives of people living with mental illness."

The College Toolbox Project website includes information about becoming a Champion of Change, events, goals, the science and other components.

Partners include Bring Change 2 Mind and IU Bloomington. Other advisors to the program include the Jed Foundation, which targets the reduction of suicidal behavior among college students; Time to Change, the United Kingdom's national, multi-faceted campaign to reduce stigma; Active Minds, a national anti-stigma organization geared toward young adults; and the National Alliance on Mental Illness college activist group. Financial support is provided by Bring Change 2 Mind and the IU Foundation, with in-kind support for faculty participation.