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Campaign against mental health stigma focus of Glenn Close’s campus visit

Apr. 30, 2015

It’s been a busy week at IU for dozens of students and faculty members involved with the College Toolbox Project -- and for Glenn Close, the award-winning actress whose Bring Change 2 Mind foundation is a partner in the campaign to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.

Close spent Monday and Tuesday at IU Bloomington, where she found time to discuss her film “Fatal Attraction” before and after a screening at IU Cinema. She also delivered a Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lecture, at which gender studies professors interviewed her about her film and TV roles.

IU junior David Haggerty, director of research and analysis and co-director of the student advisory board of the U Bring Change 2 Mind organization, meets actor Glenn Close. Also in the front row from left: IU junior Elliott Hudson, who served as a judge for the campaign projects, and Lauren Smith, programming director of U Bring Change 2 Mind and co-director of the Student Advisory Board. | PHOTO BY CHRIS MEYER, IU COMMUNICATIONS

But a central purpose of her visit -- work that is close to her heart -- involved the U Bring Change 2 Mind College Toolbox Project, in which IU Bloomington students and researchers will develop, field-test and evaluate a range of approaches to changing attitudes about mental illness and mental health.

“There is no other university in the country that is trying to do anything like this,” Close said.

Close connected with IU Bloomington through Bernice Pescosolido, Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences and a leading researcher on the stigma associated with mental illness. Pescosolido chairs the advisory council for Bring Change 2 Mind, which Close started in 2010.

The actress visited the campus in November 2013 to give a talk as part of the College of Arts and Sciences themed semester project. While here, she had the chance to see work on mental health stigma produced by students in a 100-level sociology class that Pescosolido taught.

“And I was so impressed by it, by some of their incredibly creative ideas,” she recalled this week.

That experience and a follow-up conversation involving Bloomington Provost and IU Executive Vice President Lauren Robel and IU first lady Laurie Burns McRobbie birthed the campus initiative. U Bring Change 2 Mind is the university affiliate of Close’s organization. And the College Toolbox Project is an organized effort to develop a set of tools to combat stigma among college students.

Planning for the project began last fall with recruiting of student volunteers and a campus celebration featuring a popular comedy troupe. This spring, teams of students worked long hours competing to develop the best public awareness efforts -- including public service announcements, print materials, posters and even campus-wide festivals and events -- focused on mental health awareness.

And this week, Close and Pamela Harrington, executive director of Bring Change 2 Mind, helped judge the competition. The winners, announced Wednesday, get prizes ranging from $250 cash to a trip to New York to present their proposal at the third annual Bring Change 2 Mind gala.

The official launch of the project comes this summer, when a new cohort of freshmen arrive on campus for orientation. Over the next four years, the students will experience a variety of messages, events and activities designed to raise awareness and change attitudes toward mental illness.

The tactics that are effective will go “into the toolbox” and be made available, free of charge, for other colleges and universities to adapt and use. Equally important, some approaches will be judged ineffective and will be refined or rejected.

Close said it’s important that the project includes rigorous, scientific evaluation.

“I feel very strongly about that,” she said. “You can have all these issues and people who care very much about them. But you want to prove you’re doing something that’s actually changing.”

Another key element, she said, is that the project is driven by students: like Lauren Smith, an IU Bloomington sophomore who along with junior David Haggerty leads its student advisory board.

Smith got involved last fall in response to an email blast from Susan Barnett, manager of the College Toolbox Project and a graduate student in the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington. Working on the project -- and serving as a judge this week for the public awareness campaign competition -- Smith has developed an appreciation for the importance of raising awareness of mental illness and stigma.

“Whether you realize it or not, it affects so many people,” she said. “And it’s not talked about. We want to start the conversation. We want people to feel comfortable talking about these things.”

Close was inspired to start Bring Change 2 Mind by the experiences of her nephew, who was hospitalized because of schizoaffective disorder, and her sister, who has bipolar disorder. Both are talented artists who are doing well thanks to high-quality treatment. But both have faced rejection and discrimination as a result of their illness.

This week at IU’s Bryan House, Close, Harrington and Pescosolido reflected on the progress that has been made and the challenges that remain. In some ways, they said, society has grown more open and thoughtful about illness – one example is the attention paid to military veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. But discrimination in housing, employment and other areas continue. And mental health often takes a back seat when it comes to the availability of resources.

One area in which there has been marked improvement, Pescosolido said, is that Americans have grown much more willing to discuss their own mental health concerns with family and friends.

“We’re moving in the right direction on that,” she said. “Now we need to create an environment where having that discussion doesn’t mean they are punished for doing so.”

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