In 1993 information emerged from the state of New York indicating that consumers of mental health services felt more stigmatized within the mental health system than outside of it. Armed with this disconcerting news, the Maryland Mental Hygiene Administration (MHA) decided to take action. A task force was created, comprised of 25 stakeholders including consumers, advocates, providers, administrators, and family members to develop a method of examining and addressing the issue of stigma within Maryland’s public mental health system.
The early task force meetings revealed that stigma was not only alive and well in the mental health community at large, but also within the committee itself. In addition to powerful stories of stigma faced by consumers, other stakeholders shared their experiences. For example, family members spoke of feeling blamed when they sought help for their loved ones, providers shared frustrations with interdisciplinary stigma, and it soon became clear that stigma was a matrix from which no one was exempt.
Not only did members of the task force realize that they had been stigmatized themselves, they also realized that they had perpetuated stigma. This painful discovery provided the impetus for the examination of long-standing assumptions. Over the course of many months, members began to challenge each other about what they perceived to be stigmatizing statements, attitudes or behaviors. There were tears, raised voices, hurt feelings. However, there was also insight, awareness, and growth. Beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors started to change.
The group knew that they had stumbled upon a process that needed to be shared---particularly with people who didn’t see any need for change--- and so began to create an innovative way to share it with the rest of the mental health system. They designed and piloted an interactive workshop, which has now been being facilitated throughout Maryland, around the country and internationally for more than two decades. In 2008, we worked with world-renowned stigma researcher Dr. Patrick Corrigan to design and implement a pilot study to show quantitatively that the Anti-Stigma Project is an effective tool for reducing stigma, and the research project yielded heartening results. In the words of the researchers, “the ASP workshop raises awareness, improves attitudes, decreases stigma, and fosters a sense of personal recovery.” Our definition of the “system” has expanded through the years to include substance use disorders, and indeed the state of Maryland recently merged the addictions system and mental health system into one system addressing “behavioral health.”