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CARE TO SHARE? By sharing his bipolar diagnosis, Marc Van Herr was freeing himself and lifting the stigma: “I got an amazing amount of support from friends and colleagues.”

Making It OK

Businesses, organizations unite around campaign to reduce mental illness stigma. 

By Janelle Bradley
Photography by John Linn

Marc Van Herr can recall one of the darkest days in his life with absolute clarity. It was the early 2000s and he was sitting in his vehicle, a knife in his hand, with a plan to end his life. Ultimately, thoughts of his 4-year-old daughter gave him the strength to put down the knife and head home. It would be two years before Van Herr sought help.

Stories like Van Herr’s are all too common, perpetuated, in part, by the stigma surrounding mental illness. Spurred by growing awareness and stepped-up advocacy, organizations across Central Minnesota are rallying around the Make It OK campaign championed by HealthPartners to have open and honest conversations—at work, at home, in public—about mental illness, its prevalence and the toll it takes on individuals and our broader society.

“I didn’t share [my bipolar diagnosis] with anybody because I didn’t want it to affect my friendships,” said Van Herr, executive director of the Beautiful Mind Project and a recent graduate of the Foundation’s Initiators Fellowship. “I didn’t want it to affect my job opportunities. I didn’t want it to affect my career.”

It wasn’t until he was diagnosed with diabetes in 2015 that Van Herr really began to see the stark contrast between society’s response to physical illness vs. mental illness. He didn’t hesitate to share his diabetes news with family and friends. In fact, he found an incredible amount of support and affirmation to help him cope.

In keeping his bipolar diagnosis to himself, Van Herr realized he was perpetuating the stigma. It was then that he decided to go public and tell story about his bipolar disorder and his brush with suicide.

“It was the scariest thing I had ever done,” he said. “But it was also the most liberating thing I’ve ever done. I got an amazing amount of support from friends and colleagues. And that was when I started thinking about the Beautiful Mind Project.”

By sharing relatable stories written by real people, Van Herr’s Beautiful Mind Project has contributed to reducing the stigma by putting a face to mental illness. An important offshoot of the Beautiful Mind Project is Urgent Care for Mental Health, which connects people to therapists who can provide care within 24 hours.

The average wait time to receive therapeutic care for a mental illness in the United States is 25 days, Van Herr said. “So the concept is very simple: You give people the help when they need the help the most. With my work during the Initiators Fellowship, we’ve developed a system that enables us to get people in the same, or the next day. Not everyone has a mental illness, but everyone has mental health. We want to eliminate all of the reasons to not get help.”

Van Herr is now in the process of opening Mindology Mental Wellness Center in St. Cloud. Mindology aims to be accessible while proactively expanding mental health care to combine traditional therapy with other wellness techniques, including nutrition, massage, meditation and yoga.

“One of the biggest challenges is that people feel like they’re alone,” Van Herr said. “We want to develop a community where people feel they belong and can have access no matter where they are in their mental health journey.”

ACCESS IS EVERYTHING
Reducing the stigma and having timely and ongoing access to mental health services saves lives, said Lisa Bershok, suicide prevention program manager at CentraCare.

Suicide is the No. 10 cause of death in the United States. It ranks No. 8 in Minnesota. Bershok said the risk of suicide is highest among adolescents to young adults, especially in communities of color.

Kahin Adam, a community health worker and psychotherapist at CentraCare, was awarded a 2021 Bush Fellowship for his work in the Greater St. Cloud area to reduce barriers for immigrants and refugees. A refugee from Somalia, he serves as an educator and community organizer and is using his fellowship to build a network of colleagues around the country to support the field of trauma-informed care.

“We really use community outreach as a way to educate on mental health and wellness and the resources available,” he said. For many new Americans, “it’s the feeling of the unknown—the fear of not knowing how it works or what to expect.” ]

MAKE IT OK
In Central Minnesota, organizations like the Initiative Foundation are embracing the Make It OK campaign to reduce the stigma and to create space in the workplace to talk about mental health wellbeing.

“We want our staff to know that we understand mental health affects everyone,” said Matt Varilek, president at the Initiative Foundation. “It’s OK to be vulnerable. We model this with our staff because we want a healthy team. Just as learning about physical or financial health has helped our colleagues thrive in those aspects of their lives, we believe combating stigma around mental illness will strengthen our team as well. Our hope is that working in partnership with other organizations who have also embraced this campaign, we can have a positive impact on our community at large.”

Visit makeitOK.org to learn how you can become a Make It OK ambassador or how your organization can align to the Make It OK campaign.

If you or someone you know needs to talk, consider the Minnesota Peer Support Connection Warmline. Certified peer specialists are available to listen, provide support and referrals at (844) 739-6369 from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. seven nights a week.

If you or someone you know are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text MN to 741741.

Make It OK is a campaign to reduce the stigma of mental illnesses, encouraging individuals to talk more openly about mental illnesses. The premise is simple: If we know more, we can do more. If we understand more, we’ll make it OK.

WHAT IS THE DEFINITION OF STIGMA? A set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society has about something. Mental illness stigma comes in many forms, including exclusion, distancing, silence and labeling.

WHAT CAN YOU DO? Talk. Listen. Replace awkward silence with empathetic questions and understanding. Spread the word that mental illnesses are often chemical imbalances that can be alleviated with proper treatment, including therapy and medication.

Things to say:  Things not to say: 
"Thanks for opening up to me." "It could be worse."  
"Is there anything I can do to help?' “Just deal with it.” 
"How can I help?"  “Snap out of it.”
"Thanks for sharing."  “Everyone feels that way sometimes.”
"I'm sorry to hear that. It must be tough."  “You may have brought this on yourself.”
"I'm here for you when you need me." “We’ve all been there.”
"I can't imagine what you're going through." “You’ve got to pull yourself together.”
"People do get better."  “Maybe try thinking happier thoughts.”

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