#MGHLetsListen: Mental health stigma – “Some people are left out of these conversations – and usually, they have the most at stake”

In September 2010, ‘Bell Let’s Talk’ began a new conversation about mental health in Canada. ‘MGH Let’s Listen’ is a Hospital series dedicated to listening to the stories of healthcare providers working and caring for patients experiencing mental health issues in the Canadian healthcare system.

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By: Lois Didyk, Community Social Worker at Michael Garron Hospital

My name is Lois Didyk and I’m a social worker.

I have been working for the past 28 years as a Community Mental Health Counsellor with Michael Garron Hospital’s (MGH) Community Outreach Services. I love working with people and helping them to be more than their diagnosis.

Over the course of my career, I’ve heard a lot about mental health stigma; but none of this made much of a difference in the lives of the people I worked with. And these are the people I’m most concerned about when we talk about reducing mental health stigma – those who are marginalized or most vulnerable because of their mental health issues.

Mental health stigma in marginalized communities

While talking is good, let’s recognize that some of us benefit more from talking about mental health stigma than others. I could tell you about my own experiences with anxiety and panic, but that doesn’t change the lived realities of the people I work with, and those marginalized by their mental health struggles. While we may be drawn to some stories more than others, it’s really important to notice that some people are left out of these conversations. These are usually the people with the most at stake.

As with all good conversations, listening is just as important as talking. What are our most marginalized community members saying about their mental health struggles and what will help?

‘They want compassionate responses that confirm that they matter’

I hear people saying that their mental health struggles are intertwined with so many other issues. This includes living in poverty, being homeless or waiting five to eight years on housing lists, precarious work, dealing with racism and/or homophobia, lack of opportunity for new immigrants, access to healthcare, trauma, social exclusion, etc. I also hear people saying that not everybody receives the same fair treatment. For example, our black and indigenous communities tell us that they are often treated as ‘dangerous’ in relation to their mental health experiences, leading to disproportionate rates of incarceration, criminalization and police violence.

I also hear people saying that they want to be supported – not directed – in their healing and recovery. They want options, including non-medical ones that are relevant to them, and designed with them; they want compassionate responses that confirm that they matter.

‘Recovery from mental health issues is possible, recovery from stigma is harder’

As a mental health social worker, I’ve learned that dealing with stigma means looking at the bigger picture and the context of people’s lives. I’ve also learned that people can be more than their diagnosis, and that recovery from mental health issues is possible – it’s recovery from mental health stigma that is harder.

That’s because mental health stigma is about more than just how we think about people with mental health issues; it’s also about how our social and institutional practices reinforce it. Stamping out mental health stigma requires us to look at how our actions and policies hurt certain people more than others.

So, yes, let’s keep talking about mental health, let’s talk about the stigma, and let’s talk about what feeds it. Most importantly, we need to be making changes so that all of us, including those who are most marginalized and vulnerable, are benefitting from these conversations in real ways.

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