The stigma of mental illness

Young Man with His Hand on His ForeheadWhile researching for this column, I came across a story about two British supermarket chains selling Halloween costumes that make “insensitive references to mental health issues.” Insensitive is not the word I would use to describe the costumes in question – I think abhorrent is much more appropriate. I won’t go into detail because the nature of these costumes is unspeakable. Fortunately, mental health advocates took swift action and the costumes have been removed from the shelves. That’s well and good, but the damage has been done – the stigma associated with mental illness is alive and well. Can you imagine a major retailer selling a costume depicting a patient with cancer? Everyone would be outraged.

For the one in five Canadians living with mental illness, the stigma associated with their illness can often be more difficult to manage than their symptoms. Many (49 per cent) won’t even seek treatment because their fear of being judged outweighs their need for treatment. Perhaps what is even more disheartening is that often, when they do seek treatment they can be subjected to discrimination from the very people they have turned to for help.

“The stigma associated with mental illness can be a killer. In many instances health care professionals  have no idea as to the impact of stigma and discrimination. As a result, people report that once they express they have a mental illness, their legitimate physical health concerns are often disregarded,” notes Richard Chenier, Senior Project Manager at the Mood Disorders Society of Canada.

Aren’t health care professionals trained to provide care to people living with mental illness?  Shouldn’t they be the exceptions to stigma? Surprisingly, that’s not always the case. Hospital News’ monthly poll asked health care professionals if they felt their training had prepared them to care for people living with mental illness. Nearly half of respondents (47 per cent)said they had received very little training and did not feel prepared. Only 16 per cent of respondents felt confident their training had prepared to provide adequate care to this patient group.

“We hear from health professionals that they don’t receive enough training in dealing with people living with mental illness,” says Romie Christie, Manager, Opening Minds, Mental Health Commission of Canada. “Some of our recent research shows when health care providers have increased confidence in their skill level and feel they have the tools and wherewithal to help these patients they feel empowered and it reduces stigma,” she adds.

So education is part of the answer. Several professional associations have partnered with national mental health organizations to create online education courses designed to break down the stigma and provide health care professionals with the tools they need.
Christie adds, “When doctors, nurses and mental health workers in emergency rooms see patients with mental illness, they are at their most acute stage, when they aren’t doing their best. We have found another key ingredient to reducing stigma is when health professionals see people with lived experience of mental illness when they are in recovery, managing their illness and contributing to their communities.”

Dr. Tyler Black, Medical Director of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Emergency Unit, BC Mental Health and Addiction Services explains, “There is often a sense of hopelessness or this idea that mental health care is too complex, it’s a black hole, when in fact we are learning more and more and have some excellent treatments available.”

This is why Brett Batten has courageously decided to abandon his anonymity and share his story with our readers. Having lived with mental illness for 20 years, he is in recovery and thriving. It is his hope that with this month’s cover story he can dispel some of the myths and change some of the negative perceptions of mental illness.

Brett’s story is moving and powerful. He is living proof that health care professionals can make a difference in the lives of people living with mental illness. He has experienced discrimination from some health care professionals but also credits the ones who were able to see him as a person with saving his life. If that’s not enough reason to arm yourself with the education and tools you need to provide care to those living with mental illness, I don’t know what is. Mental illness is not a choice. It is a diagnosis, just like cancer or diabetes.

We have come a long way. Up until recently, Canada was the only industrialized nation in the world without a national mental health strategy. That has changed with the advent of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
“Without a doubt, mental healthcare is improving in Canada. Hospitals need to take a proactive approach and collaborate with community-based organizations which represent the voice of the consumer. Consumers with lived experience (of a mental illness) need to be listened to,” adds Chenier.

Until we arrive at a place where a costume depicting a ‘mental health patient’ evokes the same outrage as a costume of a ‘cancer patient’, there is much work to be done.