BRATTLEBORO -- The Brattleboro Retreat has been dealing with the stigma associated with mental illness since 1834, when the hospital became the first in Vermont to treat the mentally ill.

Treating psychiatric disease has come a long way since then, and in many ways so has society's acceptance and understanding of mental illness, but leaders at the hospital say there is still a long way to go.

"We've been here 180 years. If we're not giving a voice to it there's something wrong," Retreat President and CEO Rob Simpson said. "We need to be talking about this."

The Retreat announced Thursday that it was starting a media campaign -- Stand Up to Stigma -- to raise the public awareness of mental illness in our society, and to encourage families, individuals, doctors and public health officials to talk about mental illness and addiction.

Simpson said it was important for patients and their families and friends, as well as for employers to better understand how far the medical community has come in finding treatments for mental illness. As more people are comfortable talking about it, he said, it will lead to more timely and appropriate treatment. Someone, for instance, who has to leave work to receive medical help will easily tell an employer, but for those who are receiving mental illness treatment, it is usually harder to make that information public.

"People will get treatment quicker if stigma is reduced. There's no question about it," Simpson said. "People will feel more comfortable making the call getting their loved one into care and bringing themselves into services. Right now stigma keeps people away from getting care."

The Retreat received an anonymous $50,000 donation to fund the campaign, which will be focused within Vermont, said Retreat Vice President of Strategy and Development Konstantin von Krusenstiern.

The campaign will include traditional media outlets as well as social media, and von Krusenstiern said the Retreat hopes to spur additional conversations throughout the community on how mental illness touches everyone.

"Stand Up to Stigma takes a pretty unfiltered look at many of the common myths people associate with mental illness," he said. "We spell out these stigmas very clearly. They are rarely said aloud, but they serve as a damaging undercurrent in many conversations and interactions. By stating them clearly, we hope to lessen their power and highlight their faulty logic. Then we provide fact-based statements in order to both educate and prompt further discussion."

According to von Krusenstiern, the campaign is being started to both dispel myths about mental illness, as well as to help people feel more comfortable talking about it.

He said the mentally ill, and their family members have to feel safe within their communities and work places, and trying to bring the issue further into the public light is one way to do that.

The Brattleboro Retreat (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
The Brattleboro Retreat (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)

"One of goals is to help these conversations happen," von Krusenstiern said. "And whether they happen around a conference table at an insurance company or around a breakfast with a family talking to their kids about it. We hope to spark those conversations and as a result change attitudes and make a difference."

While he admitted $50,000 will only go so far, they hope to find more support for the media campaign and they want keep the conversation alive beyond their commercials, ads and social media posts.

Peter Albert, Retreat director of external affairs, said opening a dialogue about mental illness and addiction has to extend beyond only the families and the mental health community. Primary doctors typically consider every part of the human body, except the brain, and Albert said it is important for patients and their doctors to find ways to talk about mental health during routine exams.

"One of the goals of this is to just normalize it, and have all caregivers be aware of it, and make it part of the conversation," said Albert. "Right now it's not part of it because in many instances the trainings that we give medical people in school doesn't focus in on normalizing it. We don't have clean communication between mental health providers and medical providers. We need to normalize that."

At a press conference at the Retreat Thursday, Whitney Nichols talked about his struggle with mental illness.

Nichols is on the Brattleboro Retreat's Consumer Advisory Council, which helped develop Stand Up to Stigma, and he works at the Retreat as the Wellness Recovery Action Plan Facilitator.

Nichols said while treatment options and medicine have come so far over the last few decades, many of the prejudices and misunderstanding around mental illness persist.

His own struggles have led to periods of homelessness, self medication and unemployment, and if more of that can be avoided by addressing mental illness in the early stages it would benefit everyone.

"This is an important period in history. There is a civil rights peer movement," Nichols said. "The Retreat should be commended for taking this initiative with stigma reduction."

More information on the media campaign can be found at www.brattlebororetreat.org/standup.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.