Paul Dowling is the Director of Social Services at Irish Community Services based in Chicago. He spearheaded a recent initiative to destigmatize mental health issues and get a conversation started among the local Irish community in Chicago and the Midwestern United States.
A Call to Action for the Irish Community
Early in 2017, after reading a research report by University College Dublin on the Irish community of Chicago, we felt it was our responsibility to initiate something. The research findings showed that many in the community felt mental health concerns were both very common and largely unaddressed on a community level. From our own work, we knew that mental health was a persistent problem as was the stigma that surrounds the issue. Seeing the research findings was a real call to action for us, given our mission to serve, empower and connect the Irish community of the Midwestern US. In the weeks following the report’s publication, we set about designing a thoughtful and impactful approach to addressing mental health needs in the Irish community.
Creating a Campaign
As a modestly sized organization charged with serving a vast and widely dispersed Irish community, we had to be both realistic and creative in our approach. HeadTalk was crafted as a year-long education and outreach campaign that tapped into existing media outlets and networks, and offered not only information and resources, but also challenged community members to talk more about mental health. The campaign tag line was ‘let’s start a conversation’, and in doing so we hoped to diminish the stigma that makes us feel ashamed of the mental health issues that impact us all, in one way or another.
Each month, HeadTalk was featured in the Irish American News Magazine, highlighting a common mental health issue. A monthly segment on the Good Morning Ireland radio show provided another opportunity for us to reach the Irish community with quality information and encourage people to have conversations with friends, family members, and co-workers about mental health concerns.
Over the course of the HeadTalk campaign, we created a comprehensive library of informational resources on common mental health issues and tips on how to have a conversation with someone about mental health. These resources are accessible through the Irish Community Services website. ICS also used our own social media to create greater awareness of mental health issues, linking to article and initiatives that offered hope and practical support. HeadTalk had a presence at several large-scale Irish events including an information booth at Irish fests in Milwaukee and Chicago, and at the Irish Books Arts and Music festival at the Irish American heritage Centre in Chicago.
Last month, HeadTalk culminated in two free community training sessions hosted in partnership with the Chicago branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. These sessions covered topics such as understanding mental health, signs and symptoms of common mental health issues, and how to access support services. Because of this training, we now have almost 50 more community members who are informed advocates that are comfortable starting their own conversations about mental health.
Keeping the Conversation Going
While the HeadTalk campaign has officially ended, ICS is keen to keep the conversation on mental health going. HeadTalk will be a permanent feature of the ICS website and we are dedicated to continuing to use our role in the Irish community to destigmatize mental illness. Join the conversation by following ICS on Facebook or visiting our website and signing up for our newsletter.