Newswise — As a technology and business writer, Marie Verna kept her bipolar disorder quiet, fearing the stigma that revealing a mental illness would cost her her career. When she returned from a hospital stay, however, her fears were realized. “I had to present a note from my doctor – who was a psychiatrist,” she says. “Once that information was out, I knew I would never get leadership roles and wouldn’t flourish.” 
Unlike Verna, only 41 percent of the 43.8 million Americans who have a mental health condition receive the treatment they need due to concerns about stigma and discrimination, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Verna’s solution: The more people talk about their conditions, the more they “normalize” mental health issues in society. 

Verna decided to leave her job to pursue a career that would advance the validity of mental illness – and found it at Rutgers’ University Behavioral Health Care, where she lends a mental health consumer voice to staff training. In Verna’s role as a Program Support Coordinator, she also co-leads weekly “Consumer Advocacy” and “Stigma Awareness” groups as part of UBHC’s Adult Acute Partial Hospitalization program, which prepares consumers for community reintegration.

Unlike community support groups, these sessions are unique as they are offered as part of the treatment program. “Marie lends an authentic voice, empowering clients with her personal stories and providing an empathy that can only be given by someone who has walked the same path,” says Tanya Watson, a UBHC counselor who serves as co-facilitator of the groups.

The goal is for clients – with conditions such as bipolar, anxiety, schizophrenia and substance use disorders – to take ownership of their diagnoses and by doing so become self-advocates. “Everyone here recently experienced a crisis,” Verna says. “They might have lost their job, lost their family or children, or been released from jail.”

Calling stigma “the biggest issue in mental health,” Verna says it creates barriers to people trying to regain their lives after treatment or incarceration. They face stigma in obtaining work, securing housing, forming intimate relationships and building a supportive network of friends. “All of these realities create obstacles to recovery, so we face it head-on. There is an intimacy that the members bring to the group. It takes a lot of courage to say we have a mental illness and are receiving treatment.”

The “Consumer Advocacy” group helps people learn how to advocate for themselves. “We discuss their threshold for being open about their condition and then empower them to take the next step,” she says. “For example, would they write a letter, testify or sign a petition that reveals that they have a mental illness?”

“Stigma Awareness” teaches clients how to manage external stigma and internal stigma. “External stigma is when people discover someone has a mental illness and change their opinion of the person and his or her capacity to return to a functional life. This is why people do not want to talk about their mental health,” Verna says. “Internal stigma is when people also start believing this, too, and limit themselves.”

Verna leads by example, sharing stigma-busting stories, inviting clients to join her at the Mental Health Association of New Jersey’s annual stigma walk/run each October and encouraging them to discuss their conditions as a first step to educating society. “Mental illness is an invisible disability – there are no physical indicators that people can see,” she explains. “The public has to understand that we can’t just immediately buckle up and fly right.”

Families are the first to face the brunt of discovery that a loved one has mental health illness, but don’t often know what to do with the information. “The first thing that they want to know is: How do I fix this?” says group member Ali, whose mother believed that he would be “cured” as soon as he had the right medication. “The medicine we receive is not the same as that given to a heart patient,” he says. “We need to educate people that there’s a prolonged route to discovering what medication actually suits us and does not rupture other elements of our life.”

For Kaitlyn, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a few years ago in her mid-twenties, talking about her condition has become routine. “People always told me that I shouldn’t talk about my mental illness, but what am I supposed to do? I can’t will it away,” she says. “I do not have a history of aggression. I am a good mother; I taught Sunday school. I just go through phases where I don’t sleep for a few days and have a ton of energy and then get really depressed. I talk now because the more people hide their conditions, the more we all stay in seclusion.”