New staff education program to erase stigma around mental illness

By Veronica Magee

For people struggling with mental health, confiding in others can often be as difficult as battling their illness. This is partly because of the stigma attached to mental illness – the stereotypes that make people vulnerable to prejudice and discrimination. Due to stigma, many people suffer in silence. Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) is launching a new program to change that.

This fall, HHS will implement a staff education program called The Working Mind (TWM). It’s an evidence-based program developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) to address and promote mental health and reduce the stigma of mental illness in the workplace.

According to MHCC, mental illness affects one in five Canadians, and will indirectly affect everyone at some point in their life, either through a family member, friend, or colleague.

“We know that our people are at a higher risk of mental health problems than any other occupational group,” says Lisa Gilmour, manager of health, safety and wellness initiatives at HHS. She points to Mental Health Commission of Canada research that shows healthcare workers are 1.5 times more likely to be off work due to illness or disability than people in other sectors. Chronic stress and burnout are common, and many health workers report a range of conditions related to workplace stress including depression, anxiety, and substance misuse.

“We believe in talking openly about mental health among our employees, and working together to remove the stigma attached to mental illness,” says Michelle Cassidy, a healthy workplace coordinator.

“We want to reduce any negativity faced by our colleagues with mental health challenges by encouraging everyone to discuss these issues and help our colleagues seek the support they need.”

Part of Michelle’s job is to develop and implement an employee mental health strategy to build a mentally healthy working environment. “The goal is to create an environment where mental health is actively promoted, stigma is reduced, and people feel encouraged to seek support when they need it,” she says. “Overall, staff in a mentally healthy environment feel equipped with the appropriate knowledge and skills. There is a lot we can do to promote the mental health of our employees.”

The Working Mind is a natural tie to HHS’ strategic plan, which includes a focus on engaging and empowering our people to do their best work. Supporting employee mental health is a key component.

Volunteer trainers from HHS will assist in delivering training beginning in November, and all employees are invited to take part. Those attending will learn how to recognize changes in their mental health and that of others, examine the impact of stigma and discrimination in the workplace, support colleagues with mental health problems, and use skills to improve their coping and resiliency. Education sessions will be scheduled at various sites.

Veronica Magee is a public relations Specialist at Hamilton Health Sciences.