Date Published: Monday, February 13, 2012
View printable version
Niagara-wide campaign targets negative attitudes to mental illness
After she was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety two years ago at age 18, Brittany Marshall decided once cognitive behavioural therapy and medications got her symptoms under control that she wanted to help make a difference in the lives of others suffering from mental illness.
The Brock University student began volunteering with the Canadian Mental Health Association and Niagara’s Pathstone Mental Health, which last year provided services to more than 7,300 Niagara kids with a host of mental health problems.
Last year, she stood up before hundreds of Brock students and told her own personal story with mental illness. That’s when she felt the sting of the pervasive stigma associated with mental illness.
“When your friends find out they treat you differently,” she told This Week, at the launch of a new year-long, Niagara-wide campaign to face stigma head-on at regional headquarters on Monday. “Some people stepped away and don’t want to be friends any more.
“There’s so much fear.”
She said she’s lucky because she has a very supportive family, and friends who refused to be swayed by the negative stereotypes too often portrayed in movies and the media.
“I have friends who say, ‘you need a hug,’ ” she said. “I’m very fortunate.
“You know who your friends are.”
But Ellis Katsof, chief executive officer of Pathstone, which is spearheading the ‘Shatter the Stigma, Mend the Mind’ campaign in partnership with a large committee made up of educators, police, mental health experts, social workers, public health staff, the media and community members, said the fear how others will react means two-thirds of the 20 per cent of Canadians who will experience mental illness in their lives never even seek help.
Experts say serious mental illnesses are treatable, most successfully when treatment starts at the very onset of symptoms.
“Stigma is the main reason why only one-third of these people reach out for help,” Katsof told more than 100 people in the standing-room-only atrium at regional headquarters. “Please help us shatter the stigma once and for all. This is the time.”
Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) said one in 100 Canadians will develop schizophrenia, while major depression impacts eight per cent of people and anxiety closer to 12 per cent. Despite the prevalence of mental illness, it remains a taboo subject for many: CAMH said surveys have shown less than half of Canadians would socialize with a friend who had a serious mental illness, and 27 per cent of people are fearful of being around someone with a serious mental illness.
The new campaign, two years in the making, is designed to tackle stigma with a new website — mendthemind.ca — along with print ads, posters, displays and radio ads. Katsof said more than 10,000 post cards will also be distributed, on which people can jot down their own personal stories with mental illness. Those stories can then be posted anonymously on the website, he said.
A 13-second video will also air inside movie theatres more than 2,000 times over a five-week period, Katsof said.
Dr. Andrea Feller, associate medical officer of health at the Region, likened the stigma associated with mental illness to how people felt about cancer years ago. She noted that U.S. president Grover Cleveland opted to have secret cancer surgery on a boat to remove a tumour in his mouth in the late 1800s.
“There was a time when you couldn’t use the word ‘cancer,’ ” she said. “The media wasn’t even allowed to use it.”
Feller said she hoped the campaign will help overcome the lingering view among many that people who fall prey to mental illness are simply weak.
“It takes character and it takes strength and it takes resilience to overcome mental illness,” she said. “There is no place for judgement.”
On June 8, Pathstone hosts its 2012 Hope Award gala at Club Italia in Niagara Falls, celebrating the contributions of people to kids’ mental health. Henry Winkler, who suffered from an undiagnosed learning disorder as a youth and who gained fame as the character ‘Fonzie’ in the comedy show Happy Days, will be the guest speaker.
(Please note that CMHO staff does not reply to comments that are posted on news stories.)