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Getting over the stigma thing

June 24, 2013
by Terry Axelrod
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It's not easy to talk about people with severe mental illness, substance abuse, adult sex offenders, or the homeless mentally ill.

When it comes to raising money from individual donors, have you ever used the excuse that the stigma associated with behavioral healthcare is an impenetrable barrier?  It's not easy to talk about people with severe mental illness, substance abuse, adult sex offenders, or the homeless mentally ill. "We don't work with cute kids and puppy dogs" is a line I often hear.

Rather than dwelling in the "specialness" of the behavioral healthcare field as a reason for inaction, why not focus on what could be possible for your organization if your community were to embrace your mission.


Several years ago we started working with a children's home for boys who had been sexual offenders. Located 40 miles from the nearest small town, this extremely rural cluster of three group homes had intentionally kept themselves separate and hidden away from the community.

After participating in our programs and learning how to tell their story appropriately and authentically, this organization started offering small Point of Entry tours to groups of church women in the nearby small town. They talked about why the boys were in this home, what their family lives had been like, the cycle of generational abuse in which they had grown up. They talked about what it took to turn each boy's life around, what they had to "undo," the incredible expertise and dedication of their therapists in working with these boys, and their remarkable success rates.

The women quietly and passionately "adopted" this organization, making quilts and afghans to send to the boys. Over time, many of the women became significant donors.

About three years later, the executive director of this center called me in tears. "They're taking my boys!" was the one sentence I could make out in between her sniffling as I answered the call. The state funding had been severely cut back and, after living in the home for several years, her boys were going to have to go back to prison.

As she calmed down, I asked her how much money it would take to see the organization through this time, to keep the doors open and the boys with her for the next two years.  "One million dollars," she uttered, determinedly.

"Then let's go back to the ladies in town and ask for their help in raising that much money," I urged.

Gathering her resolve, and realizing it wasn't such a crazy idea, she pulled herself together and we made a plan to raise one million dollars from the donors who already truly understood the plight of the boys. These were donors who had gotten past the stigma, donors who really cared.

In that moment, the executive director realized the value of all the courageous work she had done in pulling back the curtain behind the excuse called "stigma" and educating people with stories, human stories that put a face on a scary, impersonal, clinical diagnosis and turn "childhood sexual offenders" into "our boys."

And though they didn't raise the full one million dollars, they got darn close. As much as the money, the community support for the organization brought a level of advocacy at the state level they had never before experienced, and they were able to keep their doors open.

The moral of the story: think again before you beg off on developing relationships with potential individual donors using the excuse of the stigma of mental health. Maybe it's just a convenient way to avoid your own fears about talking to strangers about the depth of your work. And rob them of being passionate advocates for your work.


Terry Axelrod

CEO, Benevon

Terry Axelrod


Terry Axelrod is founder and CEO of Benevon. She has more than thirty years of experience in the...

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