The Real Threat: Stigma & Discrimination

By Beverly Hanck

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”   George Bernard Shaw

Stigma is broadly defined as a collection of adverse and unfair beliefs.  The stigma around mental health most often leads to the inaccurate and hurtful objectification of people as dangerous and incompetent.  The shame and isolation associated with stigma prevents people from seeking the help necessary to live healthy and full lives.*

Stigma is fundamentally unjust and I wonder when society will start to view mental illness with the respect, the compassion and the dignity it deserves? Many people with a mental illness report that being judged is one of their greatest barriers to a complete and satisfying life. If someone has open heart surgery or cancer, they are blanketed in compassion and sympathy. If an individual suffers a psychosis, experiences a manic episode or a debilitating depression, they often suffer by way of losing friends, their employment and still worse, their families.

The families of the mentally ill have also been stigmatized since time immemorial. A December, 2013 study, carried out by Spanish researchers, assessed attitudes regarding mental illness in more than 16 countries including Spain. Results were published in Psychological Medicine and the authors say that based on the study’s conclusions — which take into account the cultural context of each country surveyed — that anti-stigma campaigns around mental illnesses should include relatives within their target audience.

Self-stigma, another aspect, is the internalizing by the mental health sufferer of their perceptions of mental illness. It will frequently lead to isolation, lower self-esteem, a distorted self-image and may even deter them from seeking treatment. As a result, people with a mental illness with elevated self-stigma may refrain from taking an active role in various areas of life, such as employment, housing and social life. Moreover, it is also a great barrier for social integration. It is my fervent hope that as and when we reduce social stigma, self stigma would also be similarly diminished. * bringchange2mind

The website mendthemind.ca lists the following seven important things we can do to reduce stigma and discrimination:

  1. Know the facts. Educate yourself about mental health problems. Learn the facts instead of the myths.
  2. Be aware of your attitudes and behaviour. We’ve all grown up with prejudices and judgmental thinking. But we can change the way we think! See people as unique human beings, not as labels or stereotypes. See the person beyond their mental illness; they have many other personal attributes that do not disappear just because they also have a mental illness.
  3. Choose your words carefully. The way we speak can affect the way other people think and speak. Don’t use hurtful or derogatory language.
  4. Educate others. Find opportunities to pass on facts and positive attitudes about people with mental health problems. If your friends, family, co-workers or even the media present information that is not true, challenge their myths and stereotypes. Let them know how their negative words and incorrect descriptions affect people with mental health problems by keeping alive the false ideas.
  5. Focus on the positive. People with mental health and substance use problems make valuable contributions to society. Their health problems are just one part of who they are. We’ve all heard the negative stories. Let’s recognize and applaud the positive ones.
  6. Support people. Treat people who have mental health problems with dignity and respect. Think about how you’d like others to act toward you if you were in the same situation. If you have family members, friends or co-workers with substance use or mental health problems, support and try to understand them or their choices and encourage their efforts to get well.
  7. Include everyone. In Canada, it is against the law for employers and people who provide services to discriminate against people with mental health and substance use problems. Denying people access to things such as jobs, housing and health care, which the rest of us take for granted, violates human rights. People with mental health and substance use problems have a right to take an equal part in society. Let’s make sure that happens.

More and more, celebrities and VIPs are speaking publicly about their battles with mental illness. Of course, these people have a captive audience and, while the life of a celebrity cannot be compared to a normal, everyday life, I would not discount some of the good work being done in an attempt to reduce stigma.

Glenn Close and her sister Jessie have become known as the Stigma-fighting sisters. They are not ‘just speaking out’ but have taken on a major stigma busting, world-wide project. Sister, Jessie, has bipolar and problems with alcohol, her son, Calen, is diagnosed with Schizoaffective disorder and their family history includes two uncles who took their lives. The sisters agree that there has been a lot of alcohol and a lot of depression in the family – on both sides.

They initiated a media campaign that included talk show interviews, television commercials and outdoor signage, including taxi toppers in New York City promoting their website. Glenn assures us that they have only begun. You will want to visit their website: bringchange2mind.org. They have some neat posters and messages like “Imagine if you got blamed for Cancer?” and “1 in 5 adults has a mental illness, 0 in 5 adults has an excuse to ignore them”.

Closer to home we have the Bell Let’s Talk campaign which aims to create a stigma-free Canada. Clara Hughes, Canada’s speed skating, Olympic medalist, has partnered with Bell to shed some light on mental health issues. By her own admission, she experienced two terrifying years of depression. She said in an interview how her goal is to “shift this struggle in the human condition to a little better place” and mentioned that for the first time ever a $1 million grant from the Bell Let’s Talk campaign has been given to Queen’s university to combat stigma.

At Friends for Mental Health, we have had a Community Education Program for years, the aim of which is to reduce stigma. Specifically we have,

  • Provided sensitivity training to the West Island Police to encourage sensitive & appropriate intervention.
  • For the past seven years, facilitated presentations at both elementary and high schools. In these presentations our counsellor/s try to sensitize students to the pain caused by stigma and ensure that they understand that mental illness is a no-fault illness which is treatable with medication and therapy. Presentations are interactive and age appropriate.
  • Provided teacher training at the Lester B. Pearson School Board so that teachers know how to identify a student in need and interact with students with mental health issues.
  • Provided separate training for nurses and orderlies enrolled in the Lester B Pearson Adult education program.
  • Provided sensitivity training for youth protection workers at Batshaw.

To my mind, it is going to take education with a capital ‘E’ to tear down these wrongful attitudes towards individuals who suffer from mental illness and their families. Like so many societal changes, the biggest impact will come from our youth – after all, they change everything from clothing styles to attitudes about sexual orientation. Guided by their educators, our youth have the energy and spirit to carry new and innovative ideas. Children understand diversity; they care about others. In ten years I believe the stigma surrounding mental illness will almost be a thing of the past.

Indeed, as I write this, we have some unsung heroes devoting their time and energy to educating students about mental health issues. Anne Vrana, Community Life Animator at the Lester B. Pearson School Board is one of them. She believes that the stigma related to mental illness is sometimes more difficult to live with than the illness itself.  With an increase in mental health issues among youth, Anne initiated a Mental Health Campaign in 2012 at St. Thomas High School to educate both staff and students about mental health. She invited mental health professionals to give a series of presentations to both staff and students and held open class discussions where students had the opportunity to get a better understanding of mental health issues and could ask questions. In collaboration with two dedicated art teachers, Lily Skuja and Jerome  Guenette, who make it a priority to incorporate mental wellness within their classroom, students were assigned the creation of mental health awareness posters, emotional “self expression” art and “Who am I” masks. To further highlight the importance of educating youth about mental wellness, St. Thomas held a Mental Health Fair where one of their teachers, Lauren Enright, had her “Brain and Behavior” science students present over 30 kiosks addressing issues related to mental health. To mark the end of the yearlong campaign, the students’ artwork, as well as artwork submitted by a number of  West island mental health organizations, including Friends for Mental Health, was exhibited at the Artium Profundae Emotional Art Exhibit which opened at the beginning of Mental Health Week in May. The awareness campaign and Artium Profundae exhibit have become a tradition and have now incorporated Horizon High School and other mental health organizations.

I am delighted to announce that I have met and partnered with Anne Vrana with a view to initiating a major anti-stigma campaign. We want this to be huge; we want to make lots of noise, particularly during Mental Health Week in early May so do stay tuned for updates.

Let’s be clear, each and every one of us can do our part. Let’s go forward with open hearts and open minds; as Mahatma Gandhi directed, let’s “be the change we want to see in this world.”


Related Stigma Articles

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Word Power, Let’s Speak of Hope