Stigma: Identify it, Eradicate it

By Jack Bourassa, PSAC North REVP 

October 10 is internationally observed every year as World Mental Health Day. Being officially recognized by World Health Organization (WHO), observing this day comes with the “overall objective of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health.” Nationally, Mental Health Awareness Week was observed a few weeks ago, October 1-7. 

We’re still in October and I want to take this opportunity to emphasize the importance of raising awareness about mental health in our workplaces, communities and families. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of the challenges that a person might face when going through mental health disorders. Unlike any physical illness, mental illness could be hidden, and the person might suffer alone without seeking help or finding support. Stigma is a huge obstacle when trying to seek help. It might exist anywhere: in a big city or a small community. But fear of being stigmatized intensifies in smaller cities, towns and communities where it might seem that people know each other and thus, it’s easier to identify one another. Imagine being in a situation where help is needed. Your nurse practitioner or therapist happens to be the same person attending your fitness class or they’re your neighbour. You go to drop your kids off at school, and you see them dropping their kids too. You’re in a waiting room, and your co-worker happens to be waiting too. To those who fear being stigmatized and judged, those thoughts turn to nightmares. 

Stigma means seeing people with mental health illness negatively because of their condition. As a consequence, it leads to discrimination. Due to the fear of being judged or stigmatized, many people don’t seek the help they need. According to reports, less than half of Canadians who think they have depression or anxiety have gone to see a doctor about it; the rest fear stigma. 

Let’s take a look at some numbers. In any given year, one in five Canadians suffer from a mental health illness— that’s 6.7 million of our population. Around 500,000 Canadians, in any given week, are unable to work due to mental illness.

The high numbers indicate that no one is immune. If it’s not you, then you might know someone who is going through challenges: a family member, a friend, your co-workers or any other person in your community. It is a collective responsibility to ensure that our workplaces, communities and families are stigma free. The Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health (CAMIMH) compared the number of Canadians suffering from mental illness (1 in 5) to that of those suffering from Type 2 diabetes (1 in 15) in any given year. Why mental health is not viewed as equal to physical health? 

Mental illness and mental health issues must be considered within the framework of the determinants of health. This will not only ensure that funding and support are being maintained towards mental health, but will re-enforce the need of having a stigma free environment. According to CAMIMH, mental health disorders in developed countries account for more premature deaths than cancer and cardiovascular diseases. By the age 40, 50 percent will have or have had a mental illness. 

Does the future look gloomy? The future is in our hands, and it’s up to us to create a bright future where we support and care for one another. While demanding more sustainable funding for access to mental health, let’s work together to eradicate stigma. Each one of us is capable of helping in their own capacity. Let’s create a safe space for ongoing discussion, learning and support. If you’re around people promoting stigma, ask them to stop this immediately. Let’s educate ourselves and help raise awareness in our communities, homes and workplaces. If someone is going through a tough time, they need support— be an ally. Always be open and supportive if someone talks to you about their mental health. 

Let’s take a pledge to eradicate the stigma associated with mental illness wherever we find it.