“Let’s Talk” about the Stigma of Mental Illness

“There is no country, society or culture where people with mental illness have the same societal value as people without a mental illness.”
– Erwin Goffman (1963)

As a person living with Major Depressive Disorder, I’m pleased to see any positive focus on public awareness and education around the topic of mental illness. Yet, I wonder about the real effect that Bell Media’s “Let’s Talk” awareness campaign has on reducing stigma where the proverbial “rubber meets the road”. Do we really equate mental illness with physical illness in instances where we engage those in treatment or recovery? For example, if someone has a heart condition or has diabetes controlled with medication and lifestyle choices, do we honestly view their challenges and recovery the same way that we view someone with an equivalently successful management plan for depression or anxiety? In my experience, it seems the answer to that question is varied. People seem to want to understand, particularly when mental illness affects someone they know. However, it seems that too many individuals (and some institutions) are entrenched in a mindset that, generally, those who are mentally ill need to “just snap out of it”. While it’s great to talk about it, our society may have a way to go before the stigma erodes to the point where people can feel comfortable openly discussing their own struggles, particularly when a person’s career or social life is part of the equation.

I think the point Philip Moscovitch made in 2017 in the Globe and Mail regarding Bell’s “Let’s Talk” was spot-on:

“There is little evidence that these kinds of campaigns have any significant effect on changing people’s beliefs or behaviour. A study published in the medical journal The Lancet in 2015 said that when it comes to the medium- and- long-term effectiveness of anti-stigma campaigns, there is “some evidence of effectiveness in improving knowledge and attitudes, but not for behavioural outcomes.” In other words, people might change the way they think – but not how they behave.

Even worse, the campaigns could be counter-productive. “The more we emphasize how widespread the stigma of mental illness is the more we may be reinforcing people’s stigmatizing responses.””

Throughout these past 22 months, mental health awareness has become a top priority for organizations and individuals because of an increase in mental illness “due to Covid”. However, mental health will always be an issue, no matter what the world is dealing with, and stigma remains a solid barrier to many for their recovery.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, Stigma is defined as a negative stereotype. It is a fact that negative stereotypes lead to discrimination which is a behaviour that causes judgement and creates barriers to equal treatment for those living with Mental Illness. You have likely heard the connection between stigma and mental illness; It goes something like this: A friend or colleague confides in you about a recent mental health experience and then says, “Please don’t tell anyone. I don’t want anyone to know. If this gets out, I’ll lose my job/family/friends.” You nod, knowingly.

Sound familiar? The reality is that 42% of Canadians surveyed by the Canadian Medical Association in 2008 were unsure whether they would socialize with a friend who has a mental illness. The truth is that this percentage remains valid in 2022, underlining that stigma is still omnipresent.

The fear of exclusion, due to negative assumptions and stereotypes connected with mental illness, drive people to suffer in silence. In fact, 60% of people with mental health problems or illnesses won’t seek help for fear of being labelled according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. That’s stigma defined, but what does the impact of stigma from mental illness look like?:

  • Decrease in Self-esteem 
  • Loss of confidence in one’s future 
  • Exclusion from communities due to fear
  • A stripping of responsibilities for life decisions
  • An assumption that they need to be treated like children

By keeping stigma around mental illness alive, we could be contributing to a person’s downward spiral at a time when they need support the most.

So what can be done to stop the stigma and decrease the suffering caused by the stigma around mental illness? Here are three tips:

  • Educate yourself & encourage those around you to do the same
  • Pay attention to your attitudes and behaviours
  • Challenge misinformation and myths with facts as soon as you hear them, or read them on social media

Above all, normalizing mental illness will be the antidote to stigma. According to Dr. Douglas Turkington, a fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, we can all have paranoid thoughts when we get stressed, and even 14% (1 in 7) of us will have an episode of hearing voices. The human brain easily hallucinates when stressed. If we are all capable of sharing an experience at some point in our lives, isn’t it amazing then that stigma is still the main barrier to recovery? It certainly was in my case.

By understanding the impact of stigma on people impacted by mental illness, we can help create a more inclusive community, greater empathy for our friends and loved ones, and hope that we can eradicate stigma once and for all. Let’s not simply Talk; Let’s Do this!

  • cPaul

About cPaul

Father: "He never amounted to anything". Mother: "Who the hell does he think he is"? Former Teacher: "Smart as a bag of hammers". Former Boss: "Condescending". Brother: "Mom loves me more".
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