A decline in stigma over mental illness, especially among young adults in Minnesota, has advocates hopeful that more people will seek help and that more friends and relatives will step in before loved ones suffer crises or suicides.

Bloomington-based HealthPartners Institute reported an increase, from 34% in 2017 to 41% in 2019, in the share of people who would tell friends if they had mental illnesses. The increase was tracked by a survey of 2,200 people in Twin Cities and Iowa communities that have adopted the “Make It OK” campaign to reduce stigma, which can prevent people from recognizing and getting help for disorders.

More people also said they would feel confident seeking help for themselves, and talking with others about their mental illnesses, said Marna Canterbury, director of community health for HealthPartners, which has sponsored Make it OK! since it launched five years ago.

“All of these trends being directionally the same is very, very encouraging,” she said.

Greater comfort in discussing mental illness comes despite an increase in suicides, particularly among older adults. The 781 suicides in the state in 2017 represented the highest annual total since at least 1990, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. The total declined to 745 in 2018, but that still was the second-highest number of suicides in the past three decades.

Canterbury said the increase in suicides has been greater among middle-aged and older adults, whereas the decline in stigma has been greater among younger adults. The state’s suicide rate might go down if these young adults retain their attitudes about mental illness and support as they age, she added.

However, a decline in stigma has limited effectiveness compared to the amount of access people have to mental health services when needed. Despite efforts to increase inpatient and outpatient mental health services, advocates continue to report long wait times for psychiatry appointments and delays in transitioning patients from inpatient mental health facilities to step-down residential or outpatient services.

Make it OK! started five years ago in Red Wing and surrounding Goodhue County, but has expanded to other parts of the state as well as Iowa. The campaign teaches people how to have constructive conversations about mental illness, and to identify the types of stigma that inhibit those conversations.

While the survey couldn’t directly link the decline in stigma to the campaign, Canterbury said Make It OK! at least played a roll as the survey found that more people were familiar with the program.