What is Stigma?
"The Trust is helping . . . me be me"
Whether we realize it or not, most of us know someone who is a beneficiary of the Alaska Mental Health Trust. The Trust serves Alaskans who experience mental illness, developmental disabilities, chronic alcohol or drug addiction, Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia and traumatic brain injury. They are our children, parents, siblings, friends, neighbors and co-workers. Beneficiaries live in every corner of Alaska and come from all walks of life.
You may have seen The Trust’s new commercial on television.
The Trust is committed to raising awareness about our beneficiaries – with a particular focus on the stigma many face every day. Stigma may be hard to see but, for Trust beneficiaries, stigma or stereotypes can get in the way of a job, or housing, or necessary services. It can also prevent people from seeking the help and support they need.
A recent Craciun Research survey (August 2017) indicates that significant stigma remains attached to Trust beneficiaries. Throughout the survey, negative sentiment was disproportionately expressed toward Alaskans experiencing mental illness, substance addiction and other challenges, impacting respondents’ inclination to socialize with them, welcome them to their family, or trust them in the workplace.
Trust beneficiaries experience stigma because of a lack of knowledge and understanding, which can foster negative attitudes, language and behaviors towards them. Unfair treatment toward Trust beneficiaries places limits on their opportunities and rights and also contributes to a lack of resources and equitable funding for services.
At the Trust, we are committed to educating the public and decision makers about beneficiary needs. For 25 years, we have worked with partners across the state to improve the lives of beneficiaries and to serve as a catalyst for change in Alaska’s mental health continuum of care. Each year, we grant approximately $20 Million to nonprofits, state agencies, tribal organizations, local governments and other partners for projects that promote long term change and improve the circumstances of those we serve.
Meet our Beneficiaries
Betty Patterson, beneficiary
Betty Peterson grew up in southern Idaho and moved with her family to Anchorage in 1965. In August 2016, Betty was diagnosed with dementia, which caught everyone by surprise. Her daughter Toni Swearingen says “Mom has lived longer than any family member. We never expected her to have dementia. It is very scary and depressing for her.”
Betty’s family had to move her from her home in Soldotna to assisted living in Anchorage. “Having to move away from home has been the hardest for Mom,” says Toni. “Changing her surroundings made it more difficult. She had to give up her gardens and canning.”
With the help of programs that are supported by the Trust, Betty received counseling to help cope with her dementia and fear of losing her memory, as well as useful items like a radio/mp3 player for her favorite music because other means of playing music were too confusing. The Trust supports services that ensure beneficiaries have access to a continuum of long term support services that maximize independence and dignity.
“Mom is really having a hard time with homesickness but she is very happy being closer to family in Anchorage,” says her daughter. “Today she got to hold and snuggle her newest and 14th great-grandchild.”
Jennifer Johnson, beneficiary
Jennifer Johnson grew up in Carmel Valley, California, raised in an alcoholic home and surrounded by trauma. Jennifer says she adapted quickly by numbing all her feelings. She began using alcohol at 15, drinking until she blacked out. When she was 16, she began using drugs. “My life was riddled with trauma and survival,” Jennifer says.
Jennifer says she overcame her addiction by God’s grace in connecting her to Set Free Alaska, a Trust partner organization, for treatment of her substance use disorder. “I do not think I would be sober or even alive today if it weren't for the services I received from Set Free Alaska. Now, I’m thriving!”
Jennifer now lives in the Butte, near Palmer. “Every day is an opportunity to not pick up a drug or a drink and to be a grateful sober mother and go to work as a full-time case manager at Valley Oaks, a residential treatment center for women. I’m planting seeds of hope,” she says.
“Community-based mental health and addiction services are so important for Alaskans,” Jennifer says. “They provide stability, education, and healing so one can build a strong foundation and live a life in recovery learning to thrive rather than suffer and survive.”
Lily Werts, beneficiary
Lily Werts was born and raised in Anchorage. Among the many different roles and interests that make up her life, Lily is a person who experiences bipolar type two disorder. Lily says she remembers feeling symptoms as early as age five, but depression and anxiety began to affect her strongly in middle school. She says life felt dark, terrifying and hopeless.
“I felt so much internal pressure to excel,” she says. “The overwhelming anxiety made me shut down completely. I stopped trying when it came to school, hobbies and friends since it felt like there was no point to it all. As a freshman in high school, I got involved in the party scene and began using street drugs. Partying and taking drugs were the only way I could feel something other than pain and sadness. I started engaging in increasingly risky behavior.”
Everything came crashing down for Lily, when at age 16, she was sexually assaulted at a party. “I plunged into a deep, dark depression. I ended up dropping out of high school because I couldn’t handle going through the motions when all I wanted to do was not exist. My parents didn't know how to help me. As a last resort, I asked them to take me to a psychiatrist when I was 17. I received a diagnosis of clinical depression, but I bought into stigma. I didn’t want to be one of ‘those crazy people.’ I didn’t realize at the time that mental health conditions are medical conditions, just like any other physical conditions.”
Today, Lily is proud of what she has accomplished – and rightfully so. Since her hospitalization, she has graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from UAA, she serves on the board for NAMI Alaska and as project manager for its statewide online program delivery project. NAMI Alaska is the state-wide umbrella organization for Alaska's four regional National Alliance on Mental Illness affiliates and is supported by the Trust.
“I've performed onstage at the PAC and at local cabarets, I’ve won awards as a sound designer for local theatre productions, but most importantly, I get the privilege of sharing my journey with the public, including first responders and youth. Living with my mental illness has been like a rollercoaster ride but it has gotten so much better the more that I’ve learned how to live with it.”
Corbin Lopez, beneficiary
Corbin is filled with curiosity. According to his mother Karli, he is “Mr. Cause and Effect.” Like a scientist or engineer, he’s driven to figure out how the world works and is always testing what stuff does — trying to see what kind of reactions he can get.
Corbin was born in Anchorage and his parents learned he had Down syndrome shortly after his birth. It was a lot to process at the time but Karli says, “We’re lucky we’ve had a great community to support us.” When Corbin was diagnosed, his family was instantly connected with Programs for Infants and Children and received services from the early intervention program. As Corbin grew older, he continued to get support from other programs funded by the Trust.
When it comes to community-based services, Karli says, “It’s really important for community services to be available for our kids and our families because our kids are just like everyone else. They’re people first. They want to do the same things that we want to do and shouldn’t be treated any different. The more that we can do to put them in situations where they can thrive and be what they want to be, the better off we all are.”
Anthony Messier, beneficiary
Anthony Messier is from Anchorage, AK. When he was 20 years-old, he received a traumatic brain injury (TBI) after falling nearly 25 feet while installing gutters.
Due to his injury, Anthony has trouble paying attention, experiences some speech issues and gets distracted easily. Anthony admits that he is treated differently due to his TBI but he benefitted from Trust supported community based programs and services, such as support groups. According to Anthony, these services helped him “learn how to do everything correctly again.”
Anthony enjoys that he gets to spend a lot of time with his family and feels that community-based supports are especially important in Alaska.
“Alaska has the most TBI incidents per capita. We need more TBI support groups and more people that are educated about the therapies.”