Bell Let’s Talk & Queen’s renew partnership in Mental Health Research

Dr Heather Stuart addresses students at Bell Let's Talk funding announcement
Photo credit: Stephen Wild

Heather Stuart remembers the first time she spoke with Mary Deacon, chair of the Bell Let’s Talk mental health initiative, a national program dedicated to moving mental health forward in Canada.

“It was around 2010, and Bell was starting the Bell Let’s Talk initiative and they wanted to hear my ideas about the stigma associated with mental illness,” said Dr. Stuart. 

That conversation sparked a productive five-year partnership between Bell and Queen’s, with a $1 million investment from Bell Let’s Talk to create the world’s first ever anti-stigma research chair.

 In January of 2017, at an event on Queen’s campus in front of hundreds of Queen’s students, faculty, and staff, Ms. Deacon announced that Bell Let’s Talk is committing another $1 million to renew the Bell Canada Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair for a second five-year term.

When she first accepted the chair, Dr. Stuart was already one of Canada’s acknowledged experts on the effects of stigma on people living with mental illnesses.

In 1996, then World Psychiatric Association (WPA) president Dr. Norman Sartorius identified stigma as the single most pressing issue in the field. Dr. Stuart, who was working in Calgary at the time, was part of a team that worked with the WPA to pilot stigma intervention research in Canada. “We figured out that we had to listen to people to find out what was important to them,” she says.

Prior to the creation of the Bell research chair, Dr. Stuart had been listening for 15 years, both with the WPA and with the Mental Health Commission of Canada, which had also approached her for advice on how to eradicate stigma nationwide. “We had learned that knowledge isn’t the key to overcoming stigma. The key is to change behaviours.”

Following Dr. Stuart’s advice, the Opening Minds Anti-stigma initiative of the Mental Health Commission assembled a team of researchers from five Canadian universities to focus their efforts and affect change.

The initiative used an approach called “contact-based education,” in which people living with mental illnesses – not actors or researchers – deliver the message and answer questions. The result was an impressive record of intended behavioural change that garnered an Innovation Award from the international research community and put Canada at the forefront of the anti-stigma movement.

Shortly before accepting the Bell chair, Dr. Stuart met with the Bell Let’s Talk team to discuss what a partnership could mean for broadening efforts against stigma. It quickly became clear that the Bell Let’s Talk initiative would be the ideal public platform to give Dr. Stuart’s research a national voice, and soon after, the “Breaking the Silence” discussion series was born.

Every year since the chair was unveiled, Dr. Stuart has joined Canadian celebrities and Bell Let’s Talk in a public forum to inspire open discussions around mental health issues in Canadian cities, hosted in partnership with Queen’s University Alumni Association branches in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, and Vancouver.

When she isn’t helping Canadians talk openly about mental illnesses, Dr. Stuart has been working to eradicate stigma by changing behaviours— among individuals and organizations. As part of her role with the Mental Health Commission of Canada, Dr. Stuart worked with Statistics Canada to include questions about stigma in its 2016 Canadian Community Health Survey.

As a result of this inclusion, the way national data is collected now takes into account reporting on stigma. “We now know how people experience stigma and what impact it has,” Dr. Stuart says. “We know how many people experience it and how severe it is. And now researchers all over Canada are analyzing it and producing knowledge around stigma.” It was an important addition to Canada’s national data practices and signalled a vital change in the way Statistics Canada reports on mental health.

While much of Dr. Stuart’s work has concentrated on healthcare providers, the media, workplaces, and youth, one of her most impressive accomplishments focused on the behaviours of all Canadians. In 2013, through the partnership between Queen’s and Bell Let’s Talk, Dr. Stuart introduced five simple ways all Canadians can reduce stigma— through language, education, kindness, listening, and talking.

These five ways are at the forefront of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, and have broken down barriers to allow Canadians to share their mental health stories during Bell Let’s Talk Day through social media with the hashtag #BellLetsTalk.

As she gets set to begin her second term as the Bell Chair, Dr. Stuart is looking forward to changing more behaviours. She is currently working on an online educational program to help deliver tailored learning experiences to high school students.

She has also worked with Bell and human resources consultant Morneau Shepell to develop an online certificate course for workplace supervisors. This collaboration has important implications for workplaces across the country with over 340 Canadian companies using the training course.

Mostly, though, Dr. Stuart looks forward to building on the accomplishments of the last five years. “We tried a lot of things,” she says. “We feel we know what works most effectively. Now we have to be more tailored and specific and think about matching interventions to need. That’s the challenge for the next five years.”