Making Strides to Reduce the Stigma of Mental Illness

Webster’s Dictionary defines “stigma” as “a mark of shame or discredit.” Too often the notion of stigma is associated with character traits that no one need be ashamed of.

Where mental health is concerned, stigma and discrimination are far too prevalent. When people suffering from mental health issues or mental illnesses are forced to deal with unfair and negative stereotypes, it drastically affects their quality of life and creates barriers to simply being happy – something far too many of us take for granted. Imagine having to lead a life feeling constantly judged and criticized for something that seems uncontrollable and unfamiliar.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20 per cent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Ranging from major to mild, 5 per cent of Canadian families are affected by an anxiety disorder and 8 per cent of Canadian adults will deal with severe depression.

Affecting children and youth as well, 3.2 million 12-to-19-year-olds are at risk of being depressed. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15-to-24-year-olds. Canada’s youth suicide rate is ranked third in the industrialized world.

At Queen’s University, Dr. Heather Stuart, professor of Community Health and Epidemiology, has helped to launch an initiative to fight against the stigma of mental health. Dr. Stuart has been trying to understand the experience of this discrimination from the perspective of people who are dealing with mental illness. The goal is to open up the conversation about mental health so that it can be talked about comfortably. In turn, this makes it easier to learn coping mechanisms and to reduce stigmas.

“We are piloting this course to help people understand stigma in a group setting so they may learn together and from each other’s mistakes and successes,” said Stuart, who is also the Bell Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair and has been involved with the Bell Let’s Talk campaign.

Stuart said there are different kinds of stigma and each needs to be tackled in a unique way. The first, self-stigma, is when people are ashamed of their own mental-health struggles and feel they are to blame. Often when dealing with self-stigma, people try to hide their issues. Almost 50 per cent of people who feel they have dealt with depression or anxiety have not gone to see a doctor to be diagnosed or treated for the issue. Acting in denial and fear of being judged, many do not seek any form of treatment or help.

Stereotype is a stigma Stuart describes as other people’s perspectives. She said many people think those suffering from a mental illness can simply “snap out of it.” Currently, there may not be enough educational resources to help people understand that mental illnesses cannot be controlled like a light switch, easy to turn on and off. However, mental illnesses can be effectively treated.

Finally, organizational or structural stigma falls under unfair policy agendas that are not inclusive to people with mental illnesses.

To influence a change in thinking, Stuart described four areas she feels should be targeted in initiatives: high school youth, health-care providers, workplaces and the media. The media can be an integral part in relaying positive mental-health stories and generate more understanding of mental health issues.

“We’re starting in J-schools [Journalism schools] with seniors,” said Stuart. “They can then present more positive news.”

Cherry Murray, the Executive Director at Crossroad’s Children Centre, also feels the media can be beneficial: “The media has been instrumental in helping get the word out by telling the stories while also letting people know where to get help.”

Murray feels that recent progress has been made in reducing the stigma associated with mental illness. She attributes these strides to the bravery of those dealing with mental health issues.

“As more people have come forward, they begin to understand the depth of the problem and that they are not alone,” Murray said. “So more and more speak out. I believe we will never go backwards.”

Mental illness is something that can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, culture or financial situation. All Canadians at some point in their lives will at the very least be indirectly affected by a mental illness. On a universal level, the stigma associated with mental health and mental illness must stop.