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Omaha campaign uses memes, pets to help reduce stigma associated with mental health issues

Omaha campaign uses memes, pets to help reduce stigma associated with mental health issues

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A new campaign aimed at reducing the stigma often associated with mental health issues is poised to launch Thursday.

The campaign, however, may not look much like the typical awareness-raising effort.

Instead, it will use tools such as memes, pets and storytelling to allow people to share their experiences with mental health concerns and help them connect with others, said Sarah Sjolie, CEO of The Wellbeing Partners, formerly Live Well Omaha.

“It’s all (about) getting people to share their mental health stories in an effort to normalize it,” she said.

Mental health stood out as the No. 1 issue in the 2018 assessment of health needs in the community conducted by local health departments and health systems, Sjolie said.

“They felt stigma in admitting that there was a problem and in going out and trying to find resources to help,” she said.

Participants also reported feelings of social isolation, whether they were suffering from serious mental health issues or going through something more short term, such as a divorce.

“Socially, it wasn’t cool to say, ‘I’m having trouble,’ ” Sjolie said. “So the idea is to reduce stigma around it by shining a light on everyday people to share their stories.”

One part of the campaign, called Spokesimals Midwest, will encourage people to upload photos of their pets, which will be paired and shared with simple messages of encouragement and support and facts about mental health.

The other, WhatMakesUs, will offer testimonials from people living with behavioral health issues and their allies. They’re intended to show that people with such diagnoses are more than just their conditions.

The campaign will include the Douglas, Sarpy/Cass and Pottawattamie County Health Departments. Other partners are the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health and the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency.

Funding it are CHI Health, the Sherwood Foundation, Region 6 Behavioral Healthcare and the Mutual of Omaha Foundation.

Wellbeing Partners will work with Public Good Projects, an evidence-based nonprofit public health messaging group. The organization, which previously has worked with the Kaiser Permanente health system, will create memes and videos intended to tell participants’ stories.

The organization also will start a directory of mental health resources and evaluate its impact at the end.

The group will distribute the materials as toolkits to its partners, which can add their own logos and distribute them via social media or other channels. Employers and community organizations can contact Wellbeing Partners to get involved.

“This is not a high-dollar project,” Sjolie said. “But we hope it has a huge reach.”

Sjolie said the group hears from employers, especially with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, that mental health plays a role in talent retention.

A recent U.S. Census Bureau survey conducted in early May indicated a third of Americans were showing signs of clinical anxiety or depression.

The findings suggest an increase from before the pandemic. On one question on depressed mood, the percentage reporting such symptoms was double that found in a 2014 national survey, the Washington Post reported.

In Nebraska, about a third of adults reported symptoms of anxiety and depression. In Iowa, the figure was 26%. But some states have been harder hit. In Mississippi, nearly half of adults reported such symptoms.

“If we can become a more understanding, inclusive society,” Sjolie said, “it just helps with everything.”

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, meanwhile, noted this week that the pandemic has significantly impacted minority communities in Nebraska. Existing difficulties in accessing health care can compound the challenges many minority groups face during a public health event such as a pandemic.

The department is raising awareness about the issue and encouraging Nebraskans to talk about the importance of mental health care and treatment to help break down barriers, including negative perceptions about mental illness.

Agency officials also stressed the importance of providing culturally competent behavioral health care to everyone in need. The agency is working on a series of webinars addressing implicit bias in health care. The webinars are expected to begin rolling out in early fall.

Those who need help can contact the Nebraska Family Helpline at 888-866-8660. Staff are available 24/7, and interpreters are available. Also available for mental health counseling and more is the Rural Response Hotline, 800-464-0258.


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Julie Anderson is a medical reporter for The World-Herald. She covers health care and health care trends and developments, including hospitals, research and treatments. Follow her on Twitter @JulieAnderson41. Phone: 402-444-1066.

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