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Duluth group works to reduce stigma of mental illness

Shannon Sweeney Jorgenson

Proponents of a low-cost initiative designed to reduce stigma associated with mental illness are finding willing listeners within the Duluth business community.

More than 30 people attended a meeting earlier this month at Duluth City Hall related to what is called the "Make It OK" campaign.

"We want healthy employees," said Jenny Peterson, executive director of the Duluth-based Generations Health Care Initiatives. "Mental health is just as important as physical health."

Peterson is part of the coalition calling itself Northland Healthy Minds, which is made up of local agencies, businesses and faith-based communities.

Northland Healthy Minds is going door-to-door as it works to recruit additional employers and organizations to adopt a "Make It OK" mantra. The premise is that a person with a mental illness can go untreated longer than necessary if they don't feel comfortable talking about mental health. By making it OK to talk about in workplaces and other environments, the campaign supposes it will be easier for people to feel supported and seek treatment.

The city of Duluth and St. Louis County offices are onboard and the growing roster of participants includes the local hospitals, Allete, Cirrus Aircraft and more, sources said.

Shannon Sweeney Jorgenson is the chairperson of Northland Healthy Minds. She presented the Make It OK program throughout city of Duluth departments over the past couple of years. Reactions were prevailingly positive and led to a lot of good conversations, she said. The idea to roll out the campaign city-wide grew from those experiences.

"It has the potential to impact a lot of people all at once without a huge outlay of resources," Sweeney Jorgenson said. "The main point of the campaign is to make it OK to talk about mental illness and hopefully get people funnelled to the appropriate resources."

Sweeney Jorgenson compared the current climate of mental health awareness to the days when people whispered "cancer." People with mental illness often don't feel comfortable talking about it, she said, even with human resources or medical professionals. Silence can mean years spent without treatment.

"Can you imagine somebody with diabetes not seeking treatment for 10 years?" she said. "The results would be staggering."

The Make It OK program works by arranging presentations for employees and connecting employers and other organizations with ready lists of resources. The MakeItOK.org website uses examples of coworkers being supportive when someone expresses issues with things such as anxiety, depression or attention deficit disorder.

The results of better treatment of mental illness can be less frequent absenteeism and better focused employees, Sweeney Jorgenson said.

The Make It OK campaign started in the Twin Cities and has been adopted by several hospital systems, notably the Mayo Clinic Health System.

In addition to recruitment, Northland Healthy Minds is also planning a host of activities throughout the city for Mental Health Awareness Month in May, with further details expected in the coming months.

To get involved

To get involved in the local Make It OK campaign, call Northland Healthy Minds at (218) 591-4054 or write northlandhealthyminds@gmail.com. To learn more about how the campaign works, visit MakeItOK.org.

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