Challenging stereotypes

Bonnie Belec
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Province launches strategy to target stigma surrounding mental illness

Two years after she was diagnosed with a mental illness, Paula Corcoran experienced the stigma and discrimination often associated with it first hand.
“It was in that moment that man took a subtle step away from me, I realized that stigma hurts,” she said, referring to an experience she had at a conference after she told a person she had a mental health issue.

Sharing her personal story with a room filled with people Monday, during the launch of the provincial government’s anti-stigma campaign, she said the negative connotations attached to mental illness and addiction don’t help.

“The impact it can have on the life of an individual is often more debilitating than the loss, the medication and the illness,” said Corcoran, the acting executive director for the Consumers Health Awareness Network of Newfoundland and Labrador.

As the MC for the event, introducing Health Minister Paul Davis and Dr. Nizar Ladha, vice-chairman of the provincial Mental Health and Addictions Advisory Council, she said before her diagnosis she was at the top of her game.

“Having been diagnosed, life, as I knew it, dissolved,” said Corcoran.

She said she had children, a partner and a positive career, but despite all the good in her life she was clinically depressed and subsequently diagnosed with  major depressive disorder.

Corcoran said her life began to unravel and she felt she  had little or no control over what was happening. She lost her home, friends, career, her identity and life as she knew it.

Two years later, while attending the conference where she was shunned by a participant, she said, the conversation started out innocently enough, and then the person asked, “So, all these people all have something wrong with them?”

“With frustration and passion I answered, ‘yes, we all have a mental illness,’” she said, and that’s when the person stepped away from her.

Davis thanked her for sharing her experience and said that through the government’s new initiative and stories like hers and that of Clara Hughes — a six-time Olympic medallist who suffers from depression and who cycled across Canada last month to help end the stigma — change will come.

“This multi-year and multi-media social campaign will help to overcome it, and will change the way people think about it, by bringing awareness that one of five of us will experience a mental health (problem) or addiction in any given year,” said Davis, a 25-year veteran of the RNC.

He said in his former capacity as a policeman, and as a member of society, he has seen the ravages of mental illness and the damage caused by discrimination.

“With the Understanding Changes Everything campaign, we hope to inspire hope, and those of us who live with it towards recovery, hope that we can still have a full and meaningful  life, even with symptoms of an illness,” he said.

Ladha, a well-known St. John’s psychiatrist, said in order for that to happen, the community needs to work together and be accepting.

He said the campaign is an essential part in the fight against stigma for the mentally ill and in the fight against discrimination.

“What we need is an understanding and acceptance that mental illness is a true illness, like diabetes and heart disease, and I can’t emphasize it enough,” Ladha said.

“We need advocates in the business community, the banks, insurance companies, who will accept the mentally ill among them at all levels, creating opportunities and programs for the mentally ill in the workplaces,” he said.

Ladha said the province needs more appropriate treatment facilities, such as a replacement for the Waterford Hospital.

After the event, Davis said this campaign is not about treatment.

“This is about trying to lift the stigma and discrimination that far too often exists in the world for people who have mental illness and addictions,” he said.

“This is about changing people’s attitudes towards people who have a mental illness and addictions.”

Corcoran added, “As we change people’s minds and broaden their understanding, there will be more opportunity in the community to not necessarily reach out to mental health crisis services,  but to reach out to friends and family and peers about that awareness.”

The three-year, $900,000 campaign will consist of television commercials, online and cinema advertising, and promotion through social media.

Organizations: Mental Health and Addictions Advisory Council

Geographic location: Canada

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Recent comments

  • Marion M Fagan
    May 06, 2014 - 10:36

    Way to go Ms. Paula, so pleased U come so far with the help that is out there. You are a beautiful person both inside & out. Keep up the great fight & it is paying off... Take Care

  • Herb Morrison
    May 06, 2014 - 09:49

    NLCitizen. Speaking from a laypersons' perspective, one possible reason for lumping mental health and addiction together is the fact that an addiction occurs because the addict developes both a physical as well as psychological dependency on alcohol or drugs. In addition both addicts and those with a history of mental are the targets of stigmatization. That's my non-professional opinion for what it's worth

  • NLCitizen
    May 06, 2014 - 08:22

    Why is mental illness always lumped in with addictions rather than with physical illnesses. In my humble opinion , the degree of control that an individual has over a mental illness is much more than that of an addition.

    • NLCitizen
      May 06, 2014 - 08:41

      Correction. I mistakenly left out the word "limited". I meant to say "the degree of control that an individual has over a mental illness is much more limited than that of an addiction.

  • Herb Morrison
    May 06, 2014 - 08:15

    I struggled for more than twenty years before recieving effective psychiatric help, which freed me from the effects of Clinical Depression. Exactly why both mental illness in any form, and those of us with a history of mental illness are looked on as being "different" from either someone who is suffering from a physical illness, or the illness they are suffering from, is a mystery to me. Perhaps the starting point for removing the stigma inflicted on those of us with a history of Mental illness would be for me to inform your readers tht they have nothing to fear. While certain forms of Mental Illness can be inherited-Mental Illness, in any form, is not contagious.