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Shifting the dial on structural and social stigma

For more than 10 years now the Bell Let’s Talk campaign has been raising awareness, increasing understanding, and opening dialogues about mental health.

For more than 10 years now the Bell Let’s Talk campaign has been raising awareness, increasing understanding, and opening dialogues about mental health.
For more than 10 years now, Heather Stuart, the Bell Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Chair at Queen's University, has worked to foster discussions and raise awareness about the social and structural stigma surrounding mental illness. (University Communications)

It has been more than 10 years since the first Bell Let’s Talk Day was held on Jan. 26, 2011. During that time, Heather Stuart, the Bell Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Chair at Queen's University, has seen the campaign grow in scope and make significant inroads in reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Programs have been set up throughout Canadian society that are increasing understanding, opening dialogues, and improving the interactions with people with mental illness. When added together, there is clear progress.

Mental Health Promotion Week
Queen’s University is hosting a series of events and initiatives during Mental Health Promotion Week (Jan. 24-28).These include:
• Announcing the first Classroom Champions for Mental Health
• Rest & Relax Challenge – book a Peer Wellness Coaching session or Professional Healthy Lifestyle appointment
• Get Active Challenge – register for a virtual fitness class with Athletics and Recreation
• Create some beautiful affirmation art with the Queen’s Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Services
• Visit the virtual photo booth available on Bell Let’s Talk Day
• Go online and download the Bell Let’s Talk Tool Kit
• Nourish yourself by registering and picking-up a free Fresh Food Box
• Join Stories Spark Change with best-selling authors Roxane Gay and Eternity Martis
• Embrace nature in the Get Outside challenge.
Learn more about Mental Health Promotion Week.

“It makes a huge difference. It is beginning to shift the dial I think for structural stigma and social stigma,” Dr. Stuart says. “It’s a slow process and there’s lots to do yet but a fundamental decision is moving away from attitudes and trying to aim at behaviours, even if they are small behaviours, because they will accumulate over time and give people a way to do things differently.”

From raising awareness and providing tools in the early days of the campaign, Dr. Stuart says that one of the drivers of her research is informing public policy and the decisionmakers. It’s part of the continual evolution of the campaign.

“I see research as an important advocacy tool,” she says. “Having data that highlights the scope and magnitude of a problem in our society can be used to get funders attention and if you do it often enough and put the data in front of them often enough, then the questions start to be asked ‘Why aren’t you doing something about it?’”

At the same time, her research looks into solutions so that when policymakers and funders become engaged, they can be informed on the next steps. This means years of working with community partners, evaluating programs, and developing guidelines that are tried and tested.

“It’s kind of like bookends,” she explains. “On one side you want to point out the problem but on the other you want to point out the solution as well.”

Making a difference

Over the past decade, the Bell Let’s Talk campaign has raised more than $123 million to support a wide range of initiatives in the mental health community, including Dr. Stuart’s research chair. This has supplied important funding for everything from grassroots programs to in-depth research that provides the evidence to move forward.

The Bell campaign, Dr. Stuart says, has made a massive difference in the way many Canadians look at mental illness.

“The thinking behind it, the infusion of funding, the awareness that has been raised has all been exemplary,” she says. “They’re changemakers, they’re leaders. To have the courage to stand out at a time when no one was talking about mental illness or really doing much about it, and then putting it out there in full public view, that has been quite astounding and I have nothing but praise for that.”

This year, Bell has introduced funding and partnerships in support of members of the Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) communities as well as the post-secondary education sector.

Pandemic adds more stress

Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus have had a significant impact on the mental health of many people. Data show increased stress and anxiety while depression has become even more common as people deal with the continuing uncertainty and restriction to social interactions, all of which are out of their control.

While Dr. Stuart’s research has not dealt directly with the pandemic it is clear to her that there has been a negative effect on many people’s mental health. Perhaps the one silver lining is that this has increased awareness of the importance of mental health and that many people now have a touchpoint to understand mental illness better, either through their own experience or through that of a family member, friend, or colleague.

“I think the pandemic has brought mental illness very close to home and it gives people a point of empathy,” Dr. Stuart explains. “They see how their friends, their colleagues, or family are managing and what they do to manage and I think it really improves empathy for these kinds of mental health experiences and challenges.”

A growing understanding

In recent years, Dr. Stuart points out, there has been an increasing interest in the public health effects of mental illness. Epidemiological studies show that of the 10 leading causes of disability-adjusted life years, five are mental health problems. If these are added together, they are the most common cause. This has led to a growing understanding that there is a huge hidden burden with mental health conditions and mental illnesses.

However, not all changes need to be big. Even small changes in the way each of us behaves or views mental health add up to something bigger.

“I think the message is that everyone can do a little something and it will make a difference,” Dr. Stuart adds. “It’s all of our responsibility to think about how we can help the problem.”

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On Bell Let's Talk Day (Jan. 26) follow Queen's University on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to learn more about what the university and its campus partners are doing to raise awareness about mental health and stigma, as well as the supports and resources that are available for students, faculty, and staff.