Scattergood Foundation

Advancing Innovative Strategies for Change in Behavioral Health

Grant Activity: Current Activity Impacting Communities

Interview With Paul Berry of Thero.org

Recently I have had the good fortune of collaborating with the organization, Thero.org, and its founder, Paul Berry. Thero.org, and particularly its project, Be Heard, is dedicated to stigma reduction, among other pursuits. Rather than describe the work, mission, and origins of Thero.org, I will allow Paul to do so in his responses to the interview questions I have posted below.

Paul, could you tell us a bit about Thero.org and the Be Heard Project, including why you decided to create this website and what you hope to accomplish?

Thero.org attempts to reduce stigma related to mental illness and help people feel more connected. Be Heard is the first of many projects we’ll be launching to achieve those goals. The Be Heard Project features videos of people sharing personal experiences of Social Anxiety, OCD, Schizophrenia, or PTSD. It encourages people to talk about their disorder and challenge the stereotypes related to mental illness. I believe when people do this, it helps both the person telling the story and the person listening. We want people feel more connected to the world around them and inspire them to find the help they need.

What is your background and how does that relate to this project?

I’m currently a graduate student pursuing my doctorate in clinical psychology at Alliant International University in San Diego, CA. I had the initial idea for Thero.org and the Be Heard Project when I began reading the research about how people seek help. Surprisingly, estimates suggest that as much as 70% of people who need help for mental health problems never receive it. 

That number reflects actual people out there who are suffering in silence. I began to think more about that 70% and what they must be feeling. My experience of growing up biracial (African American and Caucasian) helped me to identify with the frustration, confusion, and loneliness that are often associated with self-stigma. Even though I had supportive friends and family growing up, there were times that I felt extremely isolated from those around me. The more research I read about stigma, the more I realized I had the power to help. So, with the help of Erika Nilson, Michael Fink, and a bunch of friends I began to build Thero.org and the Be Heard Project.

You mentioned that Be Heard has a focus on individuals with social anxiety, OCD, schizophrenia, and PTSD. Why did you select these disorders?

People with these four disorders have a particularly difficult time getting help and these disorders are associated with a high level of stigma. While there are people with other disorders that have difficulty accessing treatment, we felt these were the top four we could most effectively address using the Be Heard model. We hope to add other disorders to the Be Heard Project later.

Anyone who is reading this is probably aware that self-stigma can be especially damaging to self-esteem and self-efficacy for those with mental illness. How can Be Heard help those with mental illness who may apply negative stereotypes to themselves?

Thanks for asking this question, because we’ve put a lot of thought into the Be Heard Project. Watching Be Heard videos will help disconfirm the common stereotypes of mental illness that often result in shame, guilt, and fear. The goal is to replace these stereotypes with more realistic expectation of who the people are and what the disorders look like. The four big stereotypes we hope to dispel about these disorders are that people living with them:  

1) Are somehow to blame for their illness.

2) Are dangerous and should be feared.

3) Can’t take care of themselves.

4) Have little hope of leading a full and happy life.  

These stereotypes are inaccurate, but when we’re repeatedly exposed to them we start to believe it- sometimes without even noticing. Too many people with these disorders have resorted to suicide during times of extreme depression and hopelessness. We believe stigma is a big part of this problem. We want to share realistic examples of people with these disorders to challenge stereotypes and inspire hope for those who might not have any. 

As readers of this blog know from my frequent lamentations about the persistence of public stigma, stereotype endorsement regarding those with mental illness has not decreased at all in the last 15 years. This is true despite the fact that many well-intentioned programs and millions of dollars have been dedicated to stigma reduction. How will Thero.org make a difference where so many other organizations have met little success?

We believe the key to our success will be empowering people to self-organize. I think there have been great stigma reduction efforts in the past, but we strive to be different. We want to leverage preexisting online infrastructures to spark a do-it-yourself movement. The Be Heard Project is a great example of the type of projects we will be implementing. It leverages an existing infrastructure (e.g., YouTube communities) and inspires them to be the change. It’s kind of like a car engine; we provide the spark, but the people provide the power to propel us forward. That’s our model. 

Not that they are ineffective, but how can treatment providers be more effective in their interactions with clients and patients?

I think we treatment providers have been effective, but there’s always room for improvement. I think we can do better by:

1) Being aware of our own stigma.  

2) Not relying on formulaic approaches to treatment.

3) Advocating for more research into help-seeking and treatment readiness.  

Of those three recommendations, being aware of our own stigma is something each of us can do today to have a significant impact. Spending some time today reflecting about our own stigma can significantly change how we see our clients and patients. We all have different stereotypes about mental illness and we all have prejudices based on those stereotypes. Personally, I’ve had to work hard to avoid taking on a role of “the benevolent therapist” during my doctoral training. I’ve had to challenge my own stereotype that “people with mental illness can’t do it for themselves,” which often leads to the prejudice “so they need to be protected (by me).” It’s hard to figure out the right level and type of support for each person at any given time.

It can be difficult to avoid thinking in stereotypical ways, especially when we’re pressed for time at clinics. I try my best to not rely on formulaic treatment rationales and strive to figure out what intervention works for a particular person in a specific situation. I think many of us treatment providers struggle to describe exactly how and why what we’re doing works for a particular client or patient, but it’s so important. It helps bring people into therapy and prevents them from ending therapy prematurely.

Lastly, I would like to see more research into how we can better engage that 70%. There’s the altruistic reason for researching help-seeking and improving treatment readiness. We hope to end the unnecessary suffering of those struggling to get help. However, there’s also a selfish reason. As a person who wants to make a living by helping those in need, that 70% represents an untapped market of potential clients and patients. Both reasons validate the need to learn how we can better engage people with mental illness. I think there’s room for improvement within the mental health field and I hope to address these challenges with Thero.org.