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Taking the talk to another level

[Heather Stuart]
Queen’s professor Heather Stuart, the Bell Canada Mental Health and Anti-stigma Research Chair, has helped develop five guidelines to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illnesses. (University Communications)
 

As with so many aspects of life, when it comes to the stigma surrounding mental illnesses, great change can find its start in small actions.

Queen’s professor and Bell Canada Mental Health and Anti-stigma Research Chair Heather Stuart says she can see a major difference in Canadians’ knowledge and awareness of mental illness since the start of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign three years ago. But at the same time, she says, there remains much to improve.

“I think there is a bigger awareness than there used to be and now there is more knowledge out there,” says Dr. Stuart (Public Health Sciences). “So people are more knowledgeable about some of the more common conditions like depression, they know what the symptoms are and they know that it should be assessed by a health professional and may need medication.

“But it’s been harder to change people’s attitudes and their behaviours.”

As a result, Dr. Stuart and Bell are working to do just that. After the second Let’s Talk lecture last year in Ottawa, Bell asked Dr. Stuart to come up with some concrete, simple things that people can do in their daily lives to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illnesses.

“So my idea was very simple, to come up with small things you can do within your day-to-day lives,” she says of the five guidelines. “Things like simple acts of kindness, things you could learn, how you could watch your language, those kinds of things.”

Five things to help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.
1. Language matters – pay attention to the words you use about mental illness.
2. Educate yourself – learn, know and talk more, understand the signs.
3. Be kind – small acts of kindness speak a lot.
4. Listen and ask – sometimes it’s best to just listen.
5. Talk about it – start a dialogue, break the silence

At the time, she didn’t think the guidelines would go much further but Bell decided to build upon the points. The result is a series of commercials that are now being aired.

“In my thinking, I thought (the commercials) would (help reduce stigma) because it shows how those little acts of oppression, day-to-day, things we don’t even think about, a turn of phrase, something we think or we do can actually be quite disruptive or hurtful and then it models the good behaviour after that. So it shows how we get into this pattern of bad behavior and what we should do,” Dr. Stuart says. “I thought they were great.”

She likens the overall campaign against stigma to that of climate change. One person can’t change the situation on their own but a series of small acts combined with those of others can make a real difference.

“It’s not that everybody can do everything. If you think about it and you come from that perspective there’s something that everybody can do and I think that’s what the message here is,” she says. “Something small that you can do will make a difference.”

Another key change that Dr. Stuart sees is that people are starting to recognize that the issue is not about mental illnesses themselves but instead society’s response that is causing the most trouble.

“That’s important, especially if decision-makers figure this out,” says Dr. Stuart. “They are in a position to make a huge difference. They can change policies. They can change structures. They can do a lot. But they have to understand that this is a public health issue and the awareness has grown.”

Bell Let’s Talk Day is Jan. 28. To learn more about the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, visit letstalk.bell.ca.

Established in 2012 with a $1 million grant from Bell Let’s Talk to the Queen's Initiative Campaign, the Bell Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair at Queen’s University is the first research chair in the world dedicated to the fight against the stigma around mental illness.