Keith Scott is accustomed to the snap judgments people make against those with mental health challenges.
“They automatically assume they know things about you that they can’t possibly know, because they haven’t gotten the chance to know you as a person,” he said.
Pop culture characterizations of people with schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder, for example, overemphasize violence and instability, he said, and news headlines that blame mental health don’t help.
“I kind of grew up understanding that I wasn’t fully human,” Advocates peer support specialist and service recipient Heidi Trainor said, adding that she felt “worthless.” “It’s a very, very painful message.”
The Framingham-based human services provider Advocates, where Scott and Trainor work, is trying to do something about that.
The organization is holding its fifth annual See Me 5K Saturday morning at Hopkinton State Park. The run and accompanying event is part fundraiser, part awareness campaign.
“It’s one of the few races you tear up when you run the course,” Trainor said. “It’s a breakdown of the stigma as you run the race.”
As many as 400 people could attend the day, with at least 100 volunteers, race director Joleen Alicea said. Plenty of people who work at Advocates or use the organization’s services show up every year, but the race also attracts people with no connection to mental challenges.
“It’s even better when the community chooses to be a part of it,” Alicea said.
The race is a way to help people see the personalities behind the labels, the trio said.
“People who live with (mental health challenges) just want to be seen as people, first and foremost,” Scott, Advocates’ vice president of peer support and self-advocacy, said.
Scott said the organization is working to break down stigma in other ways. Those include regular free alternative film screenings for the public, followed by discussion.
“We try a lot of different approaches to engage folks,” he said, “so hopefully they come away with a different perspective.”
Scott and Trainor didn’t want to disclose their diagnoses. The reasons, they said, are many.
Scott doesn’t agree with how the diagnostic system works. It’s rarely black and white, he said, and different doctors will offer different diagnoses.
“I think the label is a good jumping off point for another discussion,” Scott said. “Why does it mean so much to you? It might not mean what you think it means.”
Mental health challenges are not like physical health challenges, he said, so although that’s a common way to normalize them, it’s misguided.
Awareness is about more than reducing biases in people without mental health challenges, race organizers said. It’s also about helping people with those challenges understand they are not alone, feel brave enough to identify themselves and ask for help.
“The idea is to change the whole organization,” Scott said, “so coming out is not a painful and terrifying thing, it’s a welcoming thing.”
The fundraising aspect of Saturday’s race goes to an Advocates’ fund meant to improve the quality of life for people with mental challenges. That could mean helping with expenses directly associated with mental health, or to more tangential things – like music lessons, school tuition, or a gym membership.
“You name it, people have used the fund to purchase it,” Scott said.
Last year the race raised about $20,000, Scott said, up from the few hundred dollars collected its first year.