Reducing the stigma of mental illness

When I began working with the Canadian Mental Health Association seven months ago, I thought I had a fair understanding of what it meant to be stigmatized, and that my own experience had enabled me to be sympathetic to the cause. At age six I contracted a virus that attacked my retinas, and by the time it was discovered and treated I was left severely visually impaired. Stigmatized as blind, I was inferred to be inherently deficient other than just different, and that much shouldn’t be expected of me. That was in the early ‘60s when any variation from the “norm” was perceived with suspicion and fear.

Thankfully social attitudes have changed and considerable steps have been taken to remove barriers for the physically challenged. Yet oddly, efforts to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness haven’t kept pace even though statistics show that one if five Canadians will experience a mental illness in their life. It is a mystery that despite the overwhelming number of lives affected directly or indirectly by mental illness the negative labels and stereotypes survive. Typically the more universal a “difference” becomes, the stigma associated with it lessens. But that does not seem to be the situation with mental illness.

What is it that causes us to socially distance ourselves from people living with mental illness? We are immersed in a society that promotes inaccuracies and misunderstandings, and we are often been led to believe that an individual with a mental illness has brought this on themselves as a choice or is inevitably dangerous, so we keep our distance.

Research has shown that mental illnesses can stem from many environmental and hereditary factors. We also now know that mental health disorders have a biological basis and can be treated like any other health condition. Yet one of the biggest obstacles to overcome in recovery is the social isolation stemming from both external and internal stigmatization. We hear and are prone to believe what the outside world says about who we are. When others acknowledge us negatively we tend to view ourselves negatively. When this internal stigmatization happens our self-esteem plummets and finding the courage to go out in the world to obtain a job, housing, medical care and integration into the community is very difficult indeed.

So how can we work together to reduce the stigma of mental illness? As philosopher Lao-Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Each time well-known people such as Margaret Trudeau, Bell Canada spokesperson Clara Hughes and Shelagh Rogers bravely step into the public eye to share their experiences of living with bipolar disease, depression and other mental illness, we all move forward. Each time someone lends a hand, opens their heart and examines their biases we help families move forward. By facing our fears we make our world a better place.

Mental Health Month is coming up in May. The Canadian Mental Health Association and our partner agencies are planning a series of social and awareness activities and your participation would be most appreciated. There are also many other ways you can help us on our journey by volunteering at our clubhouse, offering computer training, helping prepare a meal, socializing with the members or by donating slightly used household items. Our location is 2852 Skaha Lake Rd. or visit our website at http://sos.cmha.bc.ca/ to learn more about us.

Working together we can remove the barriers that block equal opportunity and prevent many good people from participating fully in their lives.

Dennis Tottenham, executive director

Canadian Mental Health Association