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Q&A with Stigma Free Carolina founders

Graduate student Nelson Pace helped found Stigma Free Carolina two years ago (courtesy of Nelson Pace).

Graduate student Nelson Pace helped found Stigma Free Carolina two years ago (courtesy of Nelson Pace).

CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, the original version of this story misrepresented the number of founders of Stigma Free Carolina. Todd Jensen is also a co-founder. The story has been updated to reflect these changes.

Two years ago, graduate students Nelson Pace, Nikhil Tomar and Todd Jensen founded Stigma Free Carolina to reduce stigma surrounding mental health concerns. Staff writer Cailyn Derickson spoke to Pace and Tomar about the impact of the Stigma Free campaign at UNC and the growing conservation about mental health on college campuses.

THE DAILY TAR HEEL: What is Stigma Free Carolina?

NELSON PACE: For me, Stigma Free Carolina is a student-run, community-based organization to help reduce stigma toward mental health concerns.

DTH: Why did you start Stigma Free?

NIKHIL TOMAR: When we came on this campus, we were curious about mental health, and fortunately for us there was data being collected by a study from University of Michigan called the Healthy Minds Study. Looking at that data, we found that seven percent of the students agreed they would think less about someone who has a mental health concern, which, when you ask students what percent of their peers will think less of someone with a mental health concern, then 50 percent agree, which means that people think most people on campus will think less of someone with a mental health concern. We wanted to implement a campaign which can get at the heart of the problem of stigma.

DTH: What impact is it making?

NP: Anecdotally, as you speak to people, you can see and hear the impact of Stigma Free Carolina where it is an organization or campaign in making UNC a more suitable environment for an open discussion about mental health. As far as our research, it has shown that our campaign has reduced personal stigma, like how they perceive another person’s mental health, and then the other aspect where we’ve made improvements is awareness of mental health resources.

DTH: How did you get interested in mental health?

NP: I got interested in mental health, in part, through my research from undergrad as well as, in a way, opening my eyes to the world around me. It’s something we all deal with, and I saw the impact poor mental health can make on an individual’s life, family, friends or acquaintances. It was something I was passionate about and something I wanted to help out with. When Nikhil originally shared this idea, and the impact we could make on campus, with me, I was quickly on board.

DTH: What are you most proud of with Stigma Free?

NP: When you look at perceived stigma on campus, people think that 50 percent of their fellow students think less of them if they were to say ‘I have a mental health concern.’ There’s a huge disparity there from reality, and I think that the thing I’m most proud of is how I’ve come to see that it really is so much better than we perceive it through interacting with the graduate school, Student Stores, Office of Student Affairs. Everyone has been on board with supporting this cause, as well as this campaign, and it’s been eye-opening to see the reality is people care and want to make things better.

DTH: What do you hope the future of Stigma Free is?

NP: I hope Stigma Free goes on to continue to reduce stigma, to make mental health comfortable to talk about to the point where when they need help, they get it. There’s no lengthy delay or deliberation, so we can prevent a lot of the really sad things that happen on our campus.

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