“What words do we use in our society to describe someone with a mental illness?” Allison Potts asks Lakeridge Health emergency department staff during an Opening Minds Project session.
Crazy, violent and scary are some of the terms commonly used by direct care staff when answering this question. Potts, an Addiction Counsellor at Lakeridge Health, stresses that, both inside and outside of health-care environments, these labels can perpetuate stigma and are often used in response to this question.
An initiative of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, Opening Minds is the largest systematic effort to reduce stigma in Canadian history. The program is evaluating a variety of initiatives focused on reducing the stigma of mental illness across the country, and is working to replicate successful programs on a national level.
The Lakeridge Health Opening Minds Project uses resources, multimedia and information sessions to equip emergency department staff with the knowledge they need to reduce stigma about mental health and addiction issues. The project contributes to the development of a welcoming hospital environment for mental health and addiction patients and promotes the sustainability of knowledge transfer to direct care staff through resources and follow-up sessions.
“We want to help change these perceptions because we aren’t just advocates in our hospital, we are community members as well,” says Potts.
Part of the Lakeridge Health Opening Minds Project information session includes contact-based education, a personal testimonial that puts a face, story and name to the stigma of mental health and addiction. For some staff, this testimonial was told by Pat, a 56-year-old resident of Durham Region who speaks to Lakeridge Health Oshawa emergency department staff about his past struggles with depression and addiction.
Pat could easily be your friend, father, neighbour or colleague. Born in a small fishing town of Newfoundland, and raised by his widowed mother in Toronto, Pat struggled to stay in school and fit-in beyond sports teams. He also struggled with what he now knows was depression.
“To me, depression is an emotion all on its own,” says Pat. “I feel I could never describe it. Everything started to go wrong [when I was depressed]; I lost my self-confidence and I couldn’t concentrate. I became isolated and started using drugs.”
Throughout his teens and twenties, Pat struggled with depression and panic attacks. Drug abuse became his way of coping with a history of physical abuse and trauma. With the help of his mother, Pat got back on his feet. He started a family, moved up the corporate ladder in the printing services industry, and was able to own two restaurants. Upon the passing of his mother, Pat again experienced an unbearable array of emotions.
“I found that painkillers made me human again. Euphoria helped me get through the day, and for a while things seemed fine. My appetite for pills grew…I was spiraling down – I lost my job and my marriage.”
After two years of sinking into homelessness and struggling with substance abuse, Pat decided to go to Lakeridge Health’s Pinewood Centre, a specialized addictions treatment centre with several locations around Durham Region. This month (October) marks two years since Pat used drugs.
“I was met with open arms, a warm heart and all of the encouragement I needed at Pinewood,” says Pat. “Compassion made it possible for me to believe in myself. I sometimes wonder where I would be without [Pinewood], but I really don’t want to know.”
Replacing labels with knowledge
During the early part of his recovery process, Pat said he accessed several health services. With each visit, he was faced with practitioners who did not have the tools or resources to respond appropriately to his addiction concerns. He was met with yelling, whispers and fear, which deterred his ability to seek further medical care.
Potts hopes the Lakeridge Health Opening Minds Project will help to change this reaction to persons with mental illness and addiction, while also promoting the equal treatment of all patients, regardless of their illness.
“The parallels you can draw between patients with cancer and a mental illness are interesting– both have similar lifestyle components and both have complicated genetic components we are just beginning to understand. Yet, both are treated in a completely different manner by society and health-care practitioners,” says Potts.
Carmela Belmonte, an RN at Lakeridge Health Oshawa’s Emergency Department, had the opportunity to hear Pat tell his story in a Lakeridge Health Opening Minds Project Session.
“After hearing Pat’s story I now am more aware of myself and actions towards our patients with mental illnesses,” says Belmonte. “I have learned to take extra time to listen to what their needs are, and have recognized that there is more behind these patients than ‘mental illnesses, drug seeking and addictions.’ There is a person who needs help, and our hospital is where they should feel comfortable asking for help.”
If he could change the way one health-care practitioner acted toward a patient with a mental illness or addiction problem, Pat feels telling the story of his recovery journey would be worth it.