Mental Illness in Canada: On-Going Discrimination and Stigma

February 9, 2017 by dccinc

Part 1: The On-going Stigma of Mental Illness

Disability Credit Canada’s mission is to help disabled Canadians qualify for Long term Disability Benefits, Disability Tax Credit & CPP Disability Benefits and then maximize their tax refunds & credits. We’ve worked with thousands of Canadians suffering from mental disabilities and we understand how impactful your condition can be on you and your family hence we regularly advocate for Mental illness.

This three-part series will focus on the ongoing issues faced by people with mental illness in Canada, and around the world.  The series will cover the following topics:

  1. The continuing stigma of mental health issues
  2. Service barriers– lack of coordination and people with mental health falling through the ‘gaps’, ending up in prison, homeless,
  3. Mental health and employment – what can employers do to encourage the hiring of people with mental health issues?

In this article, the focus will be on the ongoing issue of the stigma of mental illness. It might help to begin by separating two concepts that are often confused with each other – discrimination and stigma.

Discrimination is unfair treatment due to a person’s identity.

Stigma is the negative stereotype and discrimination is the behavior that results from this negative stereotype.

While there is no doubt that the issue of discrimination is also crucially important, the stigma surrounding mental illness is the lead-in to discrimination. Therefore, in a practical way, addressing the issue of stigma is the first step. The source of the stigma around mental illness is related to the centuries of misunderstandings, and lack of basic knowledge about mental illness. The psychiatric profession began to develop in the late 19th century with men such as Freud and Jung, but it hasn’t been until the mid-late 20th century and early 21st century that we are gaining true insight into understanding the ways in which people are affected by mental illness. For centuries, people were shoved into asylums and anyone with a mental illness was generally thought to be either feeble or dangerous.

There is currently a plethora of awareness campaigns that have been mounted in Canada and across the world with respect to understanding mental illness. In Canada, The Bell Let’s Talk Campaign @Bell_LetsTalk began in 2010 and is highly successful with Olympic athlete Clara Hughes as their national spokesperson.  This high-profile campaign has raised millions of dollars for mental health treatment, support, and awareness. However, even with famous spokespeople and raising large amounts of funds, the stigma of mental illness persists in our society, and as a result, one must ask “why”?  How is it that society continues to struggle?

One possible answer offered by the Canadian Mental Health Association  @CMHAOntario puts at least some of the responsibility on the entertainment industry. Even today, people with mental illness are often portrayed as dangerous, evil, criminal, and generally unstable. This makes for dramatic television and film plots, but it’s not accurate to suggest that all people who commit crimes struggle with mental illness. In addition to plots for weekly series, the media often sensationalizes those who commit crimes and focus on their mental illness when one exists. These portrayals often lead to continued misperceptions and misunderstandings.

The fact is, the stigma around mental illness continues to have a profound effect on peoples’ lives. People who cope with mental illness often find themselves denied housing, turned down for employment, and social circles reticent to include them as equal members. Many people with mental illness often live on the periphery of society and not as fully valued members. On the other hand, an increasing number of people have decided to be very public about their struggles with mental illness. Some of the more famous individuals who have been open about this struggle include:

  • K. Rowling has spoken openly about coping with depression when she was younger
  • Drew Barrymore has admitted she coped with depression and suicidal thoughts as a teenager
  • Carrie Fisher spoke about her struggles with Bipolar Disorder during her lifetime
  • Sylvia Plath spoke about her struggles with depression and coping with electric shock therapy
  • Elyn Saks, the well-known law professor has written extensively about coping with schizophrenia
  • Abraham Lincoln is well-known for having coped with depression and thoughts of suicide
  • John Nash, the late economist and winner of the Nobel Prize famously dealt with schizophrenia

This is a very small list of the famous people who have coped with mental illness. For some of them, such as the late President Lincoln, any public discussion of his depression would have led to the end of his political career. But, is the same true today?  How would the Canadian public react if a man or woman running for the leadership of a major Canadian political party revealed they coped with depression, or bipolar disorder, or severe anxiety to the point they required medication? The likelihood is they would be immediately discounted. Far too many people would worry about whether they could cope in a crisis. Yet, President Lincoln already proved that a high-profile leader could cope with their mental illness and still be a courageous, insightful, and strong national leader.

Mental illness continues to be one of those issues which society struggles with in many ways because of the “historical social construct of mental illness”. Society has not yet fully accepted that mental illness is like any other illness which can be treated and enable the person to fully cope with life’s challenges. After a five-year study, the Mental Health Commission of Canada concluded the following:

Change is possible. Stigma can be significantly reduced. People with mental health problems and mental illnesses can be treated respectfully and equally. To make this happen requires the collective effort of all Canadians — at home, at work, in schools, in the media, and on the frontlines of healthcare.

The Commission found that several specific types of initiatives seem to work best. They are: tailored education and awareness progress rather than the “one size fits all” approach. Any agency or organization seeking to educate their workforce should have training designed specifically for their needs. This training should include people with the lived experience of coping with mental health issues, and some form of follow-up to ensure people benefit from the training.

The CMHA recognizes two forms of stigma – external stigma and self-stigma. The latter is when individuals with mental illness feel a sense of shame or embarrassment concerning their illness. As a result, many choose to try and conceal their condition and even refuse treatment which causes more difficulties for them in the long run. Stigma can not only make life difficult, it can destroy someone’s life.  Some of the ways stigma impacts a person with a mental health issue can be:

  • Delayed access to treatment that promotes disability and impedes recovery;
  • Weakened social support;
  • Hindered social integration;
  • The prevention and obstruction of the performance of social roles;
  • Reduced quality of life;
  • Diminished self-esteem;
  • Increased unemployment.

There is no immediate answer as to how society can let go of the stigma that continues to follow the lives of people coping with mental illness. Both people with mental illness and those without must work together to move forward to create a stigma-free society.

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