How to Become Stigma-Free

If you’re somewhat health conscious, you may have decided to opt for food or beverage choices that are sugar-free, fat-free, gluten-free or caffeine-free. Or perhaps you have achieved the admirable goal of becoming drug-free, smoke-free or even debt-free. But have you ever considered becoming stigma-free?

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know I’ve written a fair amount on the issue of the many negative effects of stigma related to mental illness and several simple but effective ways to reduce stigma. (Please check out “5 Simple Steps to Reduce Stigma About Mental Illness” and “Stop Discrimination Toward People with Mental Illness.”)

Recently, I came across the idea of creating a “stigma-free zone,” which can be a classroom, workplace, or even a whole community. This idea apparently originated in Hoboken, New Jersey, who claim they became the first stigma-free zone in May, 2011. They wanted to open up the conversation about mental illness and encourage more people in their community to seek help and treatment.

In 2013, Paramus, New Jersey became the second stigma-free zone. Former New Jersey governor Richard Codey and his wife Mary Jo have also established the Codey Fund for Mental Health, which includes developing stigma-free zones as one of its focus areas. They list 15 towns and 6 college campuses who have pledged to be stigma-free. Outside New Jersey, a campus-based program, Stigma Free Carolina, was begun at the University of North Carolina in 2014.

In May, 2015, the National Alliance on Mental Illness announced its Stigmafree Campaign which encourages individuals, organizations, and campuses to replace stigma with hope and support for recovery. They offer a three-step pledge to become stigma-free, which includes: 1) educate yourself and others about the facts surrounding mental health and mental illness, 2) see the person and not the illness by listening and trying to understand, and 3) take action to lend support on mental health issues to make a difference. A recent component of the campaign invites businesses to become a Stigmafree Company and to embrace these practices in the workplace.

Perhaps one of the most impressive organizations I’ve found in the stigma-free movement is the Stigma Free Zone, which is run by the Stigma-Free Society. Based in Canada, its executive director is mental health advocate Andrea Paquette, who is also known for her “Bipolar Babe” blog, which chronicled her personal experiences of coping with bipolar disorder.

I recently corresponded with Andrea to find out more about the Stigma Free Zone and its initiatives. Andrea notes that while their initial geographical area of focus is British Columbia, they ultimately plan to move across Canada and to then expand more globally. One thing I really like about their approach is they note that stigma is not limited to just mental illness, but it can also be related to ageism, racism, sexual orientation, gender identity and many other similar characteristics. I think this description is spot on, since stigma is really at its heart a form of discrimination.

The Stigma Free Zone offers numerous resources, including a Stigma-Free Test, a Stigma-Free Pledge, and extensive information on creating a stigma-free zone. Once you’ve set up your stigma-free zone, you can maintain it with these ACTION steps:

A – Actively learn and share the facts about stigma, particularly mental illness;
C – Change attitudes and perceptions about those who are affected by stigma;
T – Talk openly about personal experiences of stigma to encourage empathy;
I – Initiate positive action when friends, family, or the media displays false beliefs and negative stereotypes;
O – Offer support to people who are affected by bullying and discrimination; and
N – Never label or judge people, ensuring to treat all with respect and dignity.

After getting inspired by all of this great information about stigma-free zones, I decided to create my first stigma-free zone, in my office at work. I took every stigma-free pledge I could find online, and I have prominently posted a “Proud To Be Stigma-Free” sign on my office door. I’m hoping this might start some conversations with my colleagues and students and raise awareness about how to reduce stigma. You, too, can become stigma-free, using the various resources I’ve described. Or take it a step further and help make your school, organization or community stigma-free. Go for it!

Here’s a question: What steps can you take to create a stigma-free zone in your school, organization or community? Please leave a comment. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Thanks!

%d bloggers like this: