May 2022: Join the Conversation Marks Five Years of Success

May 16, 2022

The Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition celebrated the five-year anniversary of its successful campaign, Join the Conversation ( at a community breakfast event on May 25 at WNED studios in downtown Buffalo. The event was sponsored by The Patrick P. Lee Foundation, a founding member and funder of the campaign.

Join the Conversation, a public awareness campaign launched in May 2017, promotes mental health awareness, and works to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness, which is often a barrier preventing people from speaking up and seeking help. The Coalition was started by 16 founding organizations and has used a comprehensive, multi-media campaign, including broadcast, website, social media, digital advertising, email, and grassroots tools to get the message out.

Melinda DuBois, chairperson, Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition and executive director, Mental Health Advocates of WNY, said that the world has changed since the initial launch of Join the Conversation.

“While our research shows that more and more people are willing to talk about their mental health, there still remains discrimination due to mental health challenges,” DuBois said.  “Unfortunately, the pandemic has led to an increase in cases of anxiety and depression. The collective trauma of COVID-19, other societal conditions, and global unrest has only worsened an existing mental health crisis – disproportionately affecting communities of color and our nation’s youth.”

One of the highlights of the member gathering was a keynote address by Kelly Marie Wofford, director of the Erie County Department of Health’s Office of Health Equity (OHE).

She shared her personal mental health journey and encouraged every individual can do their part to improve our community. Wofford said it was a challenging time following the Jefferson Street Tops shooting and a strain on mental health for many people.

“Be the light,”  she said. “One on one, we can make a difference to another person.”

Max Donatelli was the Coalition’s first chairperson and remembers why the campaign was created.

“It seems amazing to me that it is now five years that we have built a successful campaign to help end the stigma of mental illness,” he said. “Starting from a table discussion at a retreat, we have helped increase our community’s awareness of it being okay to get help when experiencing emotional hurt and/or the effects of trauma. My sincere thanks to our team for its tireless efforts and dedication to getting the word out and never giving up.”  Donatelli said.

Donatelli was recognized as one of the Coalition’s founders along with Michele Brown and Marlene Schillinger.

The Coalition’s Join the Conversation campaign is gaining momentum and changing how people view mental illness. To date, 3,784 individuals have taken the online pledge to end stigma. The pledge seeks to eliminate harmful labels like “crazy” or “nuts” in everyday language and is found on  There are more than 105,000 website users and thousands more follow the message on social media.

According to Matthew Smith, chair of the Anti-Stigma Coalition’s Outreach Committee and executive director of Preventionfocus, Inc., the Outreach Committee is charged with the task of sharing the anti-stigma message and inviting people to join us as individual pledge takers or organizational members.  Prior to the pandemic, the group hosted special events, distributed materials, and hosted speakers to engage with the community.

“Covid took a lot of those strategies away for a time and we had to change to a new way of reaching the public,” Smith said.  “It quickly became apparent that a regular Facebook Live presentation could garner an audience and we have received thousands of views and increases in engagement with our website through this strategy. It has become a foundational piece to the Coalition’s outreach efforts.”

“It is all about dialogue which is key to lessening stigma. Our Facebook Live events are in a panel format and host Karl Shallowhorn of Mental Health Advocates has a great way of sharing his perspective while moving the conversation along and getting the expert panelists to share.  Viewers can share opinions and ask questions in the chat box,” he said.

Smith also said the format allows for a deeper dive into different aspects of the stigma around mental illness, how it impacts different populations, etc.

“Hopefully, through the topics and populations (from veterans to college students to LGBTQ+ and more) we can get an audience engaged that hasn’t seen us before and maybe some of them will join the effort,” Smith said.

Additional highlights of the campaign include expansion into Niagara County, and research demonstrating positive outcomes and changing attitudes in Western New York.

The campaign has been funded by the Erie County Department of Mental Health, The Patrick P. Lee Foundation, The Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation and the NYS Office of Mental Health.

“The Coalition has met with success these past five years, but there is more to be done,” DuBois said.  “We will continue to expand the campaign’s reach and encourage and give people from all communities the ability to talk about their struggles. The path to healing is by continuing the conversation about stigma, providing information and resources, and removing barriers to treatment for all.”

“Given the ongoing effects of the current COVID pandemic, it is even more important that we broaden our efforts to end stigma and encourage everyone who needs it to get the help they need.”

Max Donatelli

Founding Chairperson, Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition

Newly Appointed Director of Health Equity Featured Speaker at ASC Member Meeting

Kelly Marie Wofford, inaugural director of the Erie County Department of Health’s Office of Health Equity (OHE) is the featured speaker at the Anti-Stigma Coalition’s member meeting on May 25. She will share her personal mental health journey and talk about how to improve health equity in Western New York. Her dedication to health equity has given her the opportunity to be an instrumental asset in the development of the Buffalo Center for Health Equity and the UB Community Health Equity Research Institute.

The newly created OHE will help ensure all minority and disadvantaged residents have equal access to preventive health care and will seek ways to promote health and prevent diseases and conditions that are prevalent among minority, marginalized, and disadvantaged populations including in rural areas.

Wofford is also the founder and principal of Front Seat Life, LLC, an organization dedicated to eliminating barriers to mental health and wellness. Living with several mental health disorders including borderline personality disorder, she shares her story to help others on their healing journey. Wofford is dedicated to ensuring all people have the same opportunity to live a healthy life no matter where they live, work, play, or worship.

“It’s so important to create spaces where people can show up as their whole selves. Living with shame and stigma of a mental health disorder hinders so many people from seeking help and embracing who they are regardless of what condition they may live with,” Wofford said. “We have to not only talk about mental health in all its forms but also to build a society where shame and stigma no longer exist.”

Kelly Marie Wofford

Erie County Department of Health’s Office of Health Equity

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