In its quest to end the stigma of mental illness, the International Bipolar Foundation (IBPF) has created a simple but potentially powerful tool: the first Mental Health Awareness patch for the Girl Scouts of America. In exchange for learning about mental health issues, a Girl Scout can earn the patch and have a new addition for her uniform, as well as a better understanding of what it means to deal with mental health challenges like depression, anxiety, ADHD and other disorders.
Abundant feedback confirms that the mental health awareness patch program, now entering its third year, is having a positive effect, says Ashley Jacobs, the IBPF’s director of operations. In one thank-you note, a Girl Scout troop leader explained that all her life she’d been pressured to hide her own mental health issues — among them, depression and anxiety. Now, she wrote, her scouts were talking openly about mental illness and learning that it’s a medical problem that can be treated, not a source of shame. “I didn’t have that person to talk to growing up and wish I did. Thank you for giving me that chance!” wrote the troop leader.
Other leaders have confirmed that their Girl Scouts are creating service projects to share what they’ve learned with others, and parents are being reached as well, Jacobs notes; several have reached out to the IBPF for help with their own mental health issue based on what they’ve learned through their daughter.
Changing Public Perceptions
The IBPF — started by four moms of children with bipolar disorder — has been providing resources, support and hope to those with bipolar disorder and their caregivers since 2007. But the organization knew it had to reach a wider audience — especially those with no personal knowledge of mental health challenges — if it really wanted to shift how the public sees bipolar disorder. The idea to create a Girl Scout patch offered a multi-layered approach: Not only would it educate the next generation of leaders to be compassionate and supportive of those with mental health issues, it would teach the girls to reach out for help if they should need it themselves. That could turn out to be vital knowledge in an era when depression, anxiety and other problems loom large for plenty of young people contending with substance use, suicide and bullying.
Making the patch a reality took several years of cooperative effort with Girl Scout leadership, Jacobs notes. At last, in 2012, a San Diego, California, troop became the first to receive the Mental Health Awareness patch at an IBPF ceremony attended by mental health advocate and former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy. Since then, about 3,000 girls have earned the patch, and the pace is picking up dramatically as word spreads, Jacobs says. “For the last six months we’ve been sending out about 100 to 125 a week.”
What a Girl Scout Learns
To earn a Mental Health Awareness patch, a troop works its way through a packet of age-appropriate quizzes and suggested activities provided by the IBPF. A troop leader can also request that an IBPF volunteer work with her group of girls. “It all depends on what the leader wants,” Jacobs explains, though she notes that every troop explores several key issues, including:
- How the brain affects mental health
- How the stigma surrounding mental illness creates barriers to treatment and support
- How the mentally ill are portrayed in the media
- How some of history’s great achievers have dealt with and overcome their mental health challenges
- How to create an anti-stigma campaign
Jacobs says that most of the troop leaders who contact IBPF about the patch have a personal connection to a mental health issue or they’ve noticed issues among their scouts. “They want to incorporate this to bring awareness — not to call out the girl, but just to provide a forum for talking about it,” she explains, adding that the response to the program has been “nothing but positive” — with one exception. Efforts to extend the patch to the Boy Scouts have been repeatedly rebuffed. “We’ve tried to work with their headquarters, but they are so resistant. It’s very unfortunate,” notes Jacobs. “Their disability patch is a picture of someone in a wheelchair, yet we know the number-one disability is depression.” Parents who have both Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts often ask if their son can earn the patch as well, Jacobs says. When she gets a request, she doesn’t stand on ceremony: “I tell them, ‘Go ahead. We’ll send you the patch if he does the requirement.’ The more education the better!”
Photo courtesy of the International Bipolar Foundation