SAULT STAR: Time to challenge stigma around mental illness

SAULT STAR: Time to challenge stigma around mental illness

This column, written by Judeline Innocent - Vice President of Clinical Service and Chief Nursing Officer at the Group Health Centre, appeared in the March 12th edition of the Sault Star. To see it in this context, click here

Time to challenge stigma around mental illness

I read a recent article published in The Sault Star January 30th 2014 the title was "We have a long way to go to address mental illness". In follow-up to that article, I would like to add some explanation for why it is we have such a long way to go.

The term stigma is defined in the dictionary as, "a mark of shame or discredit, or an identifying mark…a specific diagnostic sign of a disease" (Merriam-Webster, 1994). An undeserving negative trait or characteristic assigned by society to a person or a group. Stigma is often reinforced by lack of knowledge, misconceptions and fear.

According to the World Health Organization 2001, the single most important barrier to overcome in any community is the stigma and associated discrimination towards people suffering from mental and behavioral disorders. As long as mental disorder stigma continues to exist, some people will continue to hesitate to seek help because they fear being seen as weak of character. They will continue to not wish to be judged. Sometimes, they do not want to see a health professional because they do not want a label associated with a mental disorder. They fear that once labelled as "mentally ill", they may face serious negative stereotypes leading to stigmatizing social consequences that often involve prejudice, discrimination and social isolation.

Although healthcare providers and funding agencies acknowledge the need to create additional programs to support those who suffer with a mental disorder, immediate attention should also be given to the stigma that is associated with mental disorders. The Canadian Center for Occupational Health & Safety posit that mental health claims are the fastest growing category of disability costs in Canada. This represents billions of dollars lost in workforce productivity. Even more staggering is the cost of personal pain and suffering experienced by those affected directly or indirectly by their psychiatric condition and the stigma associated with it. In fact, some will say the social isolation, the rejection, the fear of discipline from work, the labeling and the shame, are worse than the disorder itself.

Dr. Stuart, in the Canadian Public Policy journal special edition 2005, clearly stated fighting stigma and discrimination is fighting for mental health. The best way to begin decreasing the stigma of mental disorders is to start talking about it. The next several articles will be dedicated to ways by which collectively mental disorder stigma can be addressed in any community.

Dr. Judeline Innocent RN, BN, MScN, PhD is a graduate from Queen's University.

Her research focus was on mental disorder stigma. She evaluated an anti-stigma strategy for the Mental Health Commission of Canada. She has many years of experience developing and evaluating Mental Health programs. She is also designated by the Ministry of Attorney General of Ontario as a Mental Capacity Assessor for Finances and Personal Care. She is currently the Vice President Clinical Services and Chief Nursing Officer at Group Health Centre.

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