SAULT STAR: Not just your imagination

SAULT STAR: Not just your imagination

This article, written by Michael Purvis from the Sault Star, appeared in the March 6th edition of the paper. To see it in this context, click here

Not just your imagination

HEALTH CARE: Stigma surrounding illness still a reality despite increased awareness - GHC official


The Sault Star

As far as Judeline Innocent is concerned, it happens more often than it should.

Judeline Innocent is pictured in her office. Innocent is Group Health Centre's vice-president of clinical services and chief nursing officer as well as a proponent of lessening stigma for those who suffer from mental illness.

An elderly adult begins to suffer memory lapses or other signs of early dementia and family members stop consulting them and take over decision making, stepping in "way too fast," and placing a stigma on the mental health issue their relative is suffering.

The result can be reduced autonomy and isolation for that person - a sense that their independence and freedom has been taken away.

"It is something that I see in my line of work all the time," said Innocent.

Innocent arrived in the fall as Group Health Centre's vice-president of clinical services and chief nursing officer, having previously been program manager for mental health in the Quinte area.

A former emergency room nurse, Innocent's passion for addressing stigma and mental health comes at least partly from her brother's suicide when she was young.

"That's something that scarred me and my family, and I have always from that moment on had an interest in that part of it, that marginalized population and all the feelings and what we went through as a family, because of this death we experienced," said Innocent, who grew up in Montreal after moving to Canada from Haiti when she was a toddler.

She would later find high concentrations of mental illness in the prison system, where she was responsible for making sure the inmate population received the services they needed.

"That is a population that is extremely stigmatized, because the society would say 'Who cares about the prisoners,' but again, a prisoner could very well have been your neighbour and you wouldn't know and sometimes it's young people having made a mistake that deserves a second chance," she said.

That experience led her to focus on marginalized populations when she did her masters degree, and to go on to zero in on mental health stigma when she did her PhD.

Innocent, who will be writing a series of articles on mental illness and stigma for the Sault Star, said she hopes now to continue to try to decrease mental health stigma - and the pain and suffering it causes.

"Some people say the pain of being stigmatized is worse than the illness itself, because if somebody is afraid of you because of your diagnosis, it puts you in significant isolation," she said. "You are withdrawn from your family, your friends and your social support."

Removing stigma means creating a more supportive and understanding community and also an environment where people are less fearful of accessing services when they need help.

"Sometimes when people access mental health care sooner than later, the benefit is better. Sometimes, the more you wait, the illness is more difficult to curtail," Innocent said.

Outside her duties at GHC, Innocent is also designated by the Ministry of the Attorney General as a capacity assessor, which means she can clinically assess whether a person is capable of making legal or health decisions for themselves. It's a job that means trying to protect those who may be vulnerable to exploitation, while also making sure others maintain their freedom.

Mental health stigma also comes back to the health care system, said Innocent.

"Oftentimes, health-care providers tend to have a paternalistic approach to their care, almost thinking that these people are unable to make decisions for themselves and that is incorrect," she said.

Addressing stigma comes down to changing behaviour, and she said we'll know efforts to destigmatize mental illness are working when we can see people's behaviours change - specifically, we would see things like more employers hiring people with mental illness, and fewer people struggling to find housing.

"These are the behaviours that tell you the community is supportive and not stigmatizing," said Innocent.

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