Griffin Forum: Can policy break the stigma?


Griffin Forum panelists in the Opperman Auditorium March 15. Courtesy of Sarita Puri.

Central Michigan University hosted its Spring 2023 Griffin Forum panel focused on mental health policy in Michigan at 6 p.m. on March 14 at the Park Library Opperman Auditorium.

CMU Professor Andrea LaFontaine serves as the Griffin Endowed Chair for the Griffin Forum. LaFontaine planned the bipartisan panel on mental health and served as the event moderator. 

She said the purpose of the panel is "to the panelists to shed some light on policy that affects mental health” and to “highlight some of the resources that are available for those that are suffering with mental illness.”

LaFontaine said it is her hope that after the panel students realize policy change can start locally, it does not always have to be at a national level to make a difference.

Panelists this year included:

  • Rob Vallentine, Executive in Residence at Saginaw Valley State University and Steering Team Member of Great Lakes Bay Region Mental Health Partnership
  • Dr. Sarah Domoff, Clinical Child Psychologist
  • State Rep. Mary Whiteford
  • State Rep. Felicia Brabec, Practicing Clinical Psychologist 
  • Stacy Bare, Mental Health Advocate 

The Griffin Forum panelists gather for a post-discussion panel March 14 in the Opperman Auditorium. (Courtesy photo | Cathy LaFontaine)

The panelists discussed people who live in Michigan's struggle with mental health.

LaFontaine referenced a study from the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) that found almost 40% of adults in Michigan reported some form of anxiety or depression and nearly 30% of those adults were unable to find counseling or therapy.

"That’s almost one third. One third of those that are struggling,” LaFontaine said.

Domoff discussed the difficulty families face in affording treatment for mental illness. She said the same emphasis needs to be placed on access for mental health resources as it is for physical health resources.

Vallentine said help is needed in the workplace where employees and employers experience burnout. A national program called Mental Health First Aid was created to combat it. Vallentine said people administer first aid to physical injuries, but not to mental health issues, and the program is important in bringing about this change.

Bare said mental health policy is intertwined with policies people might not realize, like those regarding park maintenance, education and public transportation. Brabec discussed the housing crisis as also being linked to mental health policy.

“We also have to continue to raise that level of basic mental health care. And that doesn’t always look like a really significant thing,” Bare said. “That looks like recess, band, choir, art. Those things are essential to mental health, and we have to have those conversations as well.”

Whiteford discussed bullies creating mental health issues. She recalled an anecdote about her grandchildren at their Catholic school, where the priest was talking to the class and asked the students how many of them had been bullied. She said every student raised their hand.

It is important to address bullying so people can become more self-aware of the effect they have on other people, Whiteford said.  

In order to address issues surrounding mental health in Michigan, Whiteford said there are three main challenges.

  • First, there must be enough providers practicing in Michigan.
  • Second, adequate infrastructure is needed for businesses to offer counseling services.
  • Third, more funding is needed to make those things happen.

Vallentine said he believes the biggest obstacle to getting help for mental illness is the stigma surrounding it.

“I worked for the Dow Chemical company for 31 years and I, at some point, didn’t even want someone [at work] to know I was going to counseling,” he said. 

Ending the stigma around mental illness is key, the panelists said, but said there’s more work that has been done. 

Brabec said one of the tools given to Michigan residents by Senator Debbie Stabenow was Certified Community Behavioral Health Center's (CCBHC). 

CCBHCs allow Michiganders to receive high-quality health care, according to said these centers are clinics certified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to act as a CCBHC.  

CCBHCs are designed to provide comprehensive mental health and substance use disorder services to people in need, regardless of their ability to pay, including those who are underserved, have low incomes, are on Medicaid, insured or uninsured and are active-duty military or veterans. 

Domoff mentioned the counseling center on the CMU campus as a resource for students to go to if they need the help. 

The Michigan crisis center hotline is 988 and available 24/7.

“[People] can train their body and mind to seek beauty and awe in everyday life," Bare said. 

Brabec said laughing can heal people, connect them to others and allow them to “be present”. She encouraged people to check out, a website that has thousands of therapists for mental health guidance.

The event ended with an audience Q&A.

Audience members listen to the conversation about mental health and stigma during the Griffin Forum March 14 in the Opperman Auditorium. (Courtesy photo | Sarita Puri)

Ashley Hendryx, a senior at CMU studying social work, said she learned about how she can enact change locally, not just nationally.

“It’s better to start at a smaller level and work your way up, than it is to start big,” she said. “If you start small, you can get a lot of support and make a bigger change.”

Arianna Jepsen, a graduate student in the CMU clinical psychology P.h.D program, said the panel helped her understand how to make a better impact. 

“They made it seem like it’s a lot more feasible as a student to even make a difference, especially on a local level,” she said. “I feel like a lot of times that can be really daunting.”