Reducing stigma, gaining compassion

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By Courtney Morgan

The Canadian Mental Health Association defines stigma as a negative stereotype. Individuals who live with a mental health condition are often afflicted by stigma and discrimination. This negative stereotyping behaviour is a sad realism for those living with a mental illness, and it can ultimately prevent them from seeking the help they need.

For Catholic Central High School student Mari Pullman, stigma has been completely eliminated from her perceptions after volunteering at Southwest Centre for Forensic Mental Health Care.

Here’s her story:

Mari has always had a strong interest in forensic psychiatry. To help her explore this passion, she decided to volunteer at Southwest Centre where she was assigned to the Sunset Variety store. For three to four hours every Thursday, Mari helps to manage the cash, restock shelves, sell a variety of goodies and – her favourite part of the job – spend as much time as possible connecting with patients.

However, before Mari started, she had some fears about what her experience would be like. Movies, television and media had created preconceptions about people living with mental illness and although Mari felt confident starting at Southwest Centre, she knew she was holding onto a few hesitations and worries that she would need to overcome.

Today, nine months into her experience at Southwest Centre, Mari no longer carries the burden of stigma towards the patients she serves. Through volunteering her time, she has established friendships with some of the patients who visit her regularly to chat and share their stories.

“I have had an amazing time getting to know, and trying to understand, the patients I have had the privilege to meet,” says Mari. “Their friendliness and kindness has allowed me to overcome ignorance and wrongful perceptions.”

It’s been a true life lesson for Mari who explains that she understands the importance of getting to know people before judging them – a lesson she can apply across all areas of her life. This experience will also help prepare her for the future since she has recently accepted her offer of admission to King’s University College where she will study Social Sciences with a special focus on Criminology.

“I have gained a sense of understanding and compassion,” said Mari. “Psychiatric patients, especially those who have committed acts deemed criminal, are often, unfortunately, left at the outside of society. I hope the work I do in the future can help create a change for those living with mental illness.”

Courtney Morgan is a Communications Assistant at St. Joseph’s Health Care London.