Are awareness campaigns enough to turn the tide against society’s mental health stigma? Here are a few of my thoughts. What’s your take?
Awareness campaigns have become an increasingly popular strategy in the battle to erase the stigma surrounding mental illness. The idea behind these campaigns is simple: if people simply understood the illness better, they would treat sufferers with greater compassion, dignity and respect.
But does it work? Is awareness enough?
According to the Ontario Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), people with mental illness say stigma and discrimination are two of the biggest barriers to leading a satisfying life. They also fall 4th on the list of reasons why someone might not seek the mental health assistance they need.
Clearly, this is a big problem for the 20% of Canadians who experience mental illness at some point in their lives, as well as for the even greater number of people who make up their families and communities.
The reason stigma is a problem is because it affects our behavior. If our internal judgments remained internal, the negative perception we have of those with mental health issues wouldn’t be so damaging. But it doesn’t work that way. The way we think affects the way we behave. To put it simply, stigma is a mindset, discrimination is the corresponding behaviour.
Awareness may help to change a negative mindset regarding mental illness but does it provide the tools for counteracting existing discriminatory behaviour or building healthy community? Eliminating stigma doesn’t equate to a thriving community any more than eliminating adultery equates to a healthy marriage. It may create favourable conditions conducive to positive outcomes but favourable conditions alone don’t create community.
Being aware of someone’s plight is not enough to resolve it. Even knowing the solution is useless unless it is acted upon. If we are going to bring positive and lasting change to the lives of those living with mental illness, I believe we need more than an in depth understanding of their situation-we need to learn about and act in ways to improve it.
Join me next week for part II of the discussion where I will share practical ways to engage and build community with those facing mental health issues.
Sean Miller is the owner and co-founder of Thrive Mental Health, an informational resource provider for those affected by mental illness. Visit www.thrivementalhealth.ca for more details.