How a Lime Green Bracelet Connected Two Worlds

By Lisa Smusz, MS, LPCC

“May I have your bracelet?” asked the tall and rather serious looking gentleman with a heavy Dutch accent. I must have looked confused because he repeated the question.

“Your green bracelet, may I have it?” he pointed to the Each Mind Matters lime green bracelet I wore on my wrist. I am distracted, prepping for the Q&A session following a speech to approximately 100 people working in the mental health field at Hogeschool van Amsterdam about stigma reduction when he approached me from the audience.

“Sure” I said, still a little confused, as I started removing the bracelet from my wrist to hand to him.

“I’m homeless because I had problems with my mental health and could not work anymore,” he explained. “My case manager picked me up and told me I should come to this lecture. I didn’t have anything else to do, so I agreed.  But being in this room, with all these people who have gotten well, or who work with people who get well, makes me think this is not my destiny anymore. I want your bracelet to remember this, and someday I will be well and will be helping others. When this happens, I will give this bracelet to someone else who needs hope.”

Finding no words that seem appropriate, I can only smile at him as I hand him the bracelet and press it into his hand for a moment. It was not the first time I was profoundly moved during my visit to the Netherlands. I had spent the previous week visiting sites and people that gave me a thought-provoking glimpse into how people from this side of the globe view, live with, and treat mental health issues through art, education, and their own stigma reduction campaign.

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Changing attitudes is the central work of the Netherlands national stigma reduction campaign: Samen Sterk Zonder Stigma (literally translated: Together Strong Without Stigma).

Like the Each Mind Matters movement, Samen Sterk Zonder Stigma believes change begins with honest conversations about mental health: starting conversations by distributing small pins bearing a quote mark symbol worn by supporters, or by highlighting and sharing the stories of people with lived experience via their ambassadors program and webpage.

The campaign also does intensive and targeted work with specific audiences such as employers and employees to create more supportive workplaces, and works to reduce stigma that may interfere with treatment in primary or behavioral health care settings.

It is this final area that brought me to Hogeschool van Amsterdam. We are discussing how mental health professionals are not immune to holding stigmatizing attitudes, and how the integration of people with lived experience as providers of mental health services can promote a more hopeful and supportive mental health system.

11880312_10153570913372650_8079740673389711901_nI came expecting significant differences in the way our two countries approached the issue of mental health stigma across the globe, but what I found was a commonality again and again. Wherever we are on the planet people struggle with mental health challenges and with the stigma that often accompany those challenges, and everywhere people are trying to change and improve their communities. Here in the Netherlands, just as it is back home in California, a campaign is learning that honest conversation, human connection, and hope can be powerful medicine and agents of change.

I smile at the man sitting here half a world away from California, wearing the Each Mind Matters bracelet and feel hopeful. The movement isn’t just happening in California, or just here in Amsterdam, everywhere conversations are starting and people are starting to talk about how there is no “us vs. them” it’s all just us … wherever we are in the world.

Lisa Smusz

Lisa Smusz is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor with more than 15 years of experience operating large-scale mental health projects and has internationally published works on stigma reduction, and interventions for at-risk youth. Ms. Smusz currently heads her own consulting company and is an instructor at California State University, East Bay.