Nikhil Tomar, a doctoral student in occupational science and Royster Fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Graduate School, said he first became interested in mental health after realizing its impact on society and how it is addressed.
“Negative and ill-informed perceptions or perceived public perception about mental health concerns can hinder an individual’s access to timely services,” Tomar said. “Removing stigma from a community can help individuals not feel embarrassed or lesser when accessing services or receiving a diagnosis.”
That’s how he hopes Stigma Free Carolina, a new student-led campaign that has grown into a planning committee representing more than 15 campus organizations, can help. Tomar’s brainchild aims to reduce perceived public stigma, provide access to mental health information that can reduce personal stigma and advocate for improving mental health support in the UNC-Chapel Hill community.
The campaign’s kickoff lunch will be held Friday, Sept. 12 from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Top of Lenoir Dining Hall and will include information about mental health resources on campus. Student leaders also shared information at Graduate Student Orientation and FallFest.
Stigma Free Carolina began in mid-August with an initiative that gives members of the Carolina community the opportunity to photograph themselves holding signs with messages of support related to mental health. Participants can then submit photos through social media to be used on various campus platforms as well as the campaign website.
Tomar said that the idea for a photography campaign came from looking at similar ideas in the media and from his master’s thesis work with photo voice, a research methodology that uses photography to highlight individuals’ lived experiences.
“Photography helps to provide a collective imagery for community support which helps to directly reduce the perceived public stigma by highlighting its social construction,” he said.
After discussing his ideas with other Royster Fellows, Todd Jensen, a doctoral student in social work, and Nelson Pace, a doctoral student in epidemiology, joined Tomar in his campaign. The three teamed to build the multi-organizational planning committee which ultimately planned the Stigma Free Carolina campaign and its Sept. 12 kickoff event.
“To get the word out about Stigma Free Carolina and all of the events we are hosting, we knew we needed something big to showcase the campaign,” Jensen said. “We thought that a themed meal at Lenoir Dining Hall would be a great way to advertise Stigma Free Carolina. Top of Lenoir gets a lot of foot traffic during lunch time, so we expect to reach a large number of UNC community members.”
The campaign has grown to include everything from trainings and community education to a comprehensive website that provides information about mental health resources at the University. The committee has also planned a speaker panel, sponsored by the Graduate School, to be held at the Carolina Inn on Oct. 6 at 5:30 p.m.
“We hope to see all UNC community members come to realize that this is a supportive community – a place where we can talk about mental health and seek out the services we might need without worrying about others thinking less of us,” Jensen said.
Ultimately, Tomar believes that increased visibility of mental health care resources and open conversation will help students begin to access resources in a timely manner.
“It is important to realize that this is one of the premier institutions of higher education in the country,” he said. “Thus, as a community, we should make every possible effort to help students reach their maximum desired potential. I hope this small effort will help in that regard.”