Student Targets Mental Health Stigma


Nikhil Tomar, a doctoral student in UNC’s Department of Allied Health Sciences, is tackling the stigma surrounding mental health locally and globally.

By Elizabeth Poindexter, Communications Director of UNC’s Department of Allied Health Sciences

Nikhil Tomar, a doctoral student in occupational science in the Department of Allied Health Sciences, has worked for years to understand and reduce stigma surrounding mental health concerns around UNC’s campus, the Chapel Hill community and the world.

Through collaborations with the UNC School of Social Work, he has also conducted research at the intersection of mental illness and the criminal justice system in the state of North Carolina. This past summer, he participated in a Movement for Global Mental Health research project, being conducted via a collaboration between Public Health Foundation of India and King’s College London’s India Institute. As part of his dissertation, he hopes to expand upon research gathered during the summer and understand stigma toward mental illness in India.

Tomar, a Royster Fellow at UNC’s Graduate School, became interested in mental health after realizing the impact of negative and ill-informed perceptions about mental health on life experiences of individuals with mental illness. Tomar connected mental health issues with his studies in occupational science, which studies the science of everyday living, including productive physical and social activity.

“Removing stigma from a community can help people not feel embarrassed when accessing services or being diagnosed, which can have a significant impact on their future mental health. Research evidence suggests that stigma can have a more detrimental effect on individuals with mental illness than the symptomatology of the illness itself,” Tomar said.

This infographic from Stigma Free Carolina explains what CAPS - Counseling and Psychological Services at UNC.

This infographic from Stigma Free Carolina explains CAPS – Counseling and Psychological Services at UNC.

Starting Local with Club Nova
Research indicates that mortality rates are much higher among people with a mental illness when compared to the population at large. Additionally, people living with mental illness face an increased risk of social discrimination and chronic physical medical conditions.

Club Nova is trying to reduce these numbers. Since the spring of 2015, Tomar has volunteered with Carrboro-based nonprofit. Club Nova uses an international psychiatric recovery model called the clubhouse model, where people with mental illness work together to sustain the clubhouse.

“Nikhil came in to a brand new setting and was completely open. He went out of his way to build authentic relationships with members and staff and he blended right in with our way of working and was eager to absorb everything around him in a very positive way,” said Club Nova Executive Director Karen Kincaid Dunn. “Nikhil is committed to approaching the world from a place of non-judgment and it shows in his relationships with everyone he comes across. If we had a world of Nikhil’s, we would be truly stigma-free.”

On any given day, clubhouse members work in their area of interest or expertise to maintain the clubhouse – such as cooking daily meals, gardening, managing Club Nova’s thrift store, creating budgets and paying bills. The Clubhouse also helps members return to work or school, and live the life of their choice in the community.

“It has been an enriching experience for my own thinking about stigma,” Tomar said. “I thought to myself, ‘there is a need for more volunteers here. How can I, given my background as a student and on campus, assist them?’”

Specifically, Tomar, through a summer fellowship, assisted in streamlining the volunteer process at and strengthened ties between University resources and the Clubhouse.

“Nikhil came in at first with only the intention to observe and learn. He is tremendously devoted to learning a system before he attempts to work with it, which is rare. He was then able to identify a need—more structure around our volunteer program—and jumped right in,” said Kimberly Anderson, Club Nova Public Relations & Development Coordinator. “We now have many more volunteers working with us doing meaningful things and it enriches our program on all sides.”

As Club Nova enters a capital campaign, they hope to expand into a new facility to support the estimated 8,000 people in Orange County who live with serious mental illness.

Tackling Stigma on Campus
Tomar is also co-founder of Stigma Free Carolina, a campus organization aimed at reducing stigma toward mental health concerns and treatment on college campus. According to Stigma Free Carolina, more than 19 percent of UNC students felt receiving mental health treatment was a sign of personal failure. More than half of students surveyed agreed that most people would think less of someone who has received mental health treatment. Stigma Free Carolina also connects students to resources, both on and off campus, for those who need them.

While Tomar will likely finish his PhD work in 2017 or 2018, he hopes that other students will be motivated to volunteer at Stigma Free Carolina and at Club Nova.

“Students, from any walk of life, can learn so much by being at the clubhouse,” he said.

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