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Bringing mental health to the forefront

Bell Let’s Talk continues to grow but the goals haven’t changed – raising mental health awareness and ending the stigma of mental illness.

Heather Stuart, Bell Chair in Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research, facilitates a conversation called 'Let's Talk Mental Health' on Tuesday, Jan. 22 in Mitchell Hall. (University Communications)

As the inaugural Bell Chair in Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research, Heather Stuart has been leading the discussion on mental health and our behaviours around those with mental illness.

Since being first appointed in 2012, and then reappointed for another five-year term in 2017, Dr. Stuart, a professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences with cross-appointments in the Department of Psychiatry and School of Rehabilitation Therapy, has become one of the main faces and voices of Bell Let’s Talk, a campaign to bring awareness of mental health and stigma to the forefront.

Help end the stigma
The following are five tips, developed through Dr. Stuart’s research, to help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.
1. Language matters – The words you use can make all the difference. Words can help, but they can also hurt.
2. Educate yourself – Stigma has been around for a long time, and knowing the facts and myths about mental illness can be a great way to help end the stigma.
3. Be kind – Simple kindness can make a world of difference. Whether it be a smile, being a good listener or an invitation for coffee and a chat, these simple acts of kindness can help open up the conversation and let someone know you are there for them. Expressions like “You’ll get over it” and “Just relax” can minimize how a person is feeling. Instead offer your support and say “I’m sorry you aren’t feeling well.” Ask what you can do to help
4. Listen and ask – Mental illness is a very common form of human pain and suffering. Being a good listener and asking how you can help, sometimes just even being there for people you care about, can be the first step in recovery.
5. Talk about it – Break the silence. Mental illness touches us all in some way directly or through a friend, family member or colleague. Stories of people who have experienced mental health issues and who are doing well can really challenge stereotypes. Most people with mental health issues can and do recover, just by talking about it.

As the campaign has grown over the years, more and more people from all walks of life and from all sides of the mental health discussion have reached out to Dr. Stuart and her research team.

Ahead of this year’s Bell Let’s Talk Day, being held on Wednesday, Jan. 30, the Gazette spoke with Dr. Stuart about how the ongoing campaign and her research have developed over the years and where they are headed.

Since the start of the Bell Let’s Talk chair what do you see as the biggest changes for yourself and for the ongoing mental health and anti-stigma campaign?

One of the biggest changes has been the overwhelming support for Bell Let’s talk Day over the years. It seems to get bigger and better every year. Along with that comes the increasing awareness of mental health issues and increasing dialogue around mental health. All of this would not have happened, I think, without Bell bringing forward Bell Let’s Talk Day and making such effort to put mental health on the kitchen table.

What do you see as the main challenges today?

We’ve come a long way but I think there is still a long way to go. I think we have to have people feel more comfortable in their behaviors and interacting with people who have mental health issues. People are still somewhat reticent to get too close. They know a lot about mental illnesses, they’re aware, they’re sympathetic, but they still feel uncomfortable if they find out their babysitter had a mental illness or their lawyer had a mental illness or their doctor. So we have to get over that hurdle.

The other thing I think we have to do is take a really good look at the organization and structures of our institutions and critically assess what they are doing in terms of creating healthy environments for people. The Okanagan Charter is something that post-secondary institutions are using, but any organization, including the media, can look at their activities, their policies, their behavior, and say are we creating or supporting structural inequities and is there something we should be doing differently so that people with serious mental illnesses aren’t marginalized.

Early in your second term as Bell Chair in Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research, where are you going with the campaign and what is your focus for the foreseeable future?

The main focus now is on post-secondary institutions. Bell is very interested in that and they are supporting work on this voluntary standard for psychological health and safety in post-secondary institutions. I’m on the executive committee and the evaluation committee and my research group has been doing a lot of background work supporting the activities of the standards committee. We have done some literature review for them. We thought about what we might do to evaluate whether or not it’s doing what we think. So the talks at the university and other post-secondary institutions fits in with that really well because one of the things we can do is try to contextualize the standard for people and let them know that it is in development and it’s out there and what it might be for them, and to start putting the word out.

Really the focus is on making sure that gets done and done well and thinking about how we evaluate it.

On the research side is there an increasing interest in this area of study?

There certainly is for students. I’ve got more students now than I have ever had before. Part of that is because I have funding for them through Bell and through other things that we do but before I used to have some funding but no students. Now I have more students than I have space to put them in. So the interest has certainly increased. I see it in undergraduate students who want to do honours theses with me. Masters PhD and post-docs, I have all of those students so I think there is an increasing interest. I see the students on campus more interested in talking about the topic as well. So I think they’re interested in their mental health. They know that they are under stress, they know that they’re in a very competitive environment, and they do want to take care of themselves.

Through your work you meet a lot of people, whether it is through your work with promoting Bell Let’s Talk Day or through your research. What are they saying to you?

Usually they thank me, funnily enough, for working in this area. They think it’s important. People who have a family member or who have experienced a mental illness themselves are the first ones to say ‘Thank goodness somebody is paying attention to this because it’s the No. 1 challenge that we face and nobody was do anything about it.’ There needs to be more people doing something about it but they are usually very pleased and willing to help.

So I have overwhelming support from people. I think it’s been a hidden burden that people have been bearing all these years and now that it is out in the open, they are hopeful that we will be able to find solutions.

Learn more about the Bell Let's Talk campaign.

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Dr. Stuart is scheduled to appear on CTV Your Morning and the CTV afternoon program on Wednesday, Jan. 30 talking about Bell Let’s Talk Day. She also recently spoke with CFRC and that interview will air on Bell Let’s Talk Day.