Overcome Mental Health Stigma by Borrowing Best Practices From Higher Education

Overcome Mental Health Stigma by Borrowing Best Practices From Higher Education
<50% of adults with a non-serious mental illness received mental health services in 2020 Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults live with a mental illness (52.9M in 2020)

The number of people accessing mental health services remains low, despite numerous studies that demonstrate long-term benefits, regardless of whether patients are taking antidepressants or not.

Aside from external barriers to access - cost, transportation, childcare, etc. - there are often internalized barriers to access that prevent people from intentionally seeking the services they need. Their individual reasons might vary but are often rooted in longstanding bias that is deeply personal and reinforced by close-community stigmas.

Research around this has been going on for decades. In a 2015 study Sharp, Et al. defined mental health stigma as “a belief relating to an ‘attribute that is deeply discrediting,’ that reduces the target ‘from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one (1).” They also found this stigma was less about the understood value of the treatment or outcomes and based instead on the fear of people knowing an individual is accessing mental health resources. 

One industry that has been working, successfully at times, to reduce historic stigma is the higher education industry.

Higher education has historically been only accessible by the most privileged in society - existing as a closed, monastical community of learners. Over a century ago, the United States began an educational metamorphosis to empower institutions to more broadly disseminate knowledge; public universities appeared around the country, many of which are pillars in the national higher education system today. 

Public colleges and universities grew into small to medium-sized cities-within-cities, tens of thousands of students strong. For generations of a subset of Americans, there was no question that a college education was essential. But like mental health, higher education has historically struggled to make inroads into communities where there was a stigma associated with education. 

Many marginalized communities hold deeply rooted beliefs that “our type of people” don’t belong at a college or university. They assume that a college degree is too difficult, too expensive, or would take time away from other essential activities. And for a long time, higher education wasn’t doing much to disprove those beliefs. 

However, over the past five years, something unexpected has begun to happen… higher education, as an industry, is shrinking. The reasons why began well before the Covid-19 pandemic, and are complex, but the impact is real. 

The number of colleges and universities in the United States has declined by nearly 10% over the past 5 years

A single mother who works day and night in the food service industry would be unlikely to be able to complete a two-year associate’s degree. The same person, however, is much more likely to participate in a ten-week Paralegal Certificate program where she can find a salaried job in a law office upon completion. This life-changing educational opportunity can positively impact those in her close community and expose her to higher education, increasing the likelihood that she would consider a four-year degree and potentially a law degree. 

These barrier-breaking strategies are repeatable across industries, whether software development, healthcare, manufacturing, etc. And the same is true for the mental health community - increasing access and reducing the stigma behind it is critical.

Here are 3 Best Practices that can help to overcome access barriers & stigma in underserved communities: 

  1. Utilize outside resources to provide design and strategy support
    Creating a connection between a community’s needs and mental health practitioners’ capabilities can be tricky. Much can be lost in translation, and the ultimate offering can fall flat. Bringing in experienced professionals who can effectively deploy human-centered design strategies can help ensure that community need is appropriately assessed and the resulting offering resonates within the community.
  2. Focus your attention on an immediate offering
    It’s tempting to think about long-term or intensive mental health services, especially for the most at-risk communities. But it’s essential to remember that stigma does not dissolve overnight. Avoid introducing ideas of long-term activities that can be common in the mental health industry and instead focus on easy-to-access solutions that will have the most immediate impact on someone’s life.
  3. Community-sourced programming is essential
    Developing practitioner-to-community partnerships to surface community needs is key to success. Creating authentic relationships and uplifting champions within the community removes barriers to marginalized populations. 

Offering solutions for the salient needs of your audience goes a far way to reducing stigmas in underserved and unreached communities and will create an authentic, long-lasting customer relationship. Not only does your product/service need to address their mental health needs, but you must also take the next step to demonstrate that they “belong” in the mental health community, and acknowledge the benefits of accessing your services. 

Want to learn how to ensure you are including unheard voices in your research - check out the first article in our series.

Want to learn more? Schedule a half-hour call with Mad*Pow to learn more about how we can help you design more accessible experiences for your audiences.

Contributed by
Guy Felder
Job Title
Director, Experience Strategy and Program Management