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Understanding Stigma and Discrimination

Prejudice is a negative attitude towards another person based on a physical or behavioural difference. Discrimination is the negative behaviour or unfair treatment that results from this type of negative stereotype (CMHA, Ontario Division). Stigma is the umbrella term used to describe the prejudice and discrimination that people experiencing a mental illness face, often due to a lack of understanding or fear.

Misinformation, and media stories that perpetuate inaccurate perceptions of mental illnesses, reinforce a sense of shame amongst those who are struggling with problems in this area. Sometimes, this means that those who could benefit from help do not reach out because they are fearful that they will be stigmatized. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, 60% of people with a mental health problem or illness won’t seek help for fear of being labelled.

How schools can help to reduce the stigma of mental illness

Schools are an ideal place for highlighting the problem of stigma for those who experience mental health problems. When we create safe spaces for talking about mental health and mental illnesses, and encourage help-seeking amongst young people, we are creating understanding, compassion, and hope for a new generation. And, we are building young leaders who can advocate for a change in perspective.

As a member of the school community, how you view mental health and mental illnesses will influence your approach and conversations about these topics. It’s important to examine your assumptions and biases. These may be influenced by your experiences, your knowledge or lack of knowledge, or the views of those around you. Reflect on your beliefs. Consider enhancing your mental health knowledge by taking our online course. By building your knowledge, you can help dispel myths about mental health and mental illnesses.

Reducing stigma related to mental illnesses is important. Research suggests that how this is introduced is very important. Some stigma-reduction strategies are more helpful than others. For example, it is best to tailor the initiative to the audience, rather than offering a “one-size” event or speaker. Similarly, one-time sessions are much less helpful than those introduced over time. Follow up or booster sessions in small groups, rather than large assembly formats, are best (Opening Minds, Mental Health Commission of Canada). When selecting mental health awareness and stigma reduction initiatives, our decision support tool may be helpful in assessing and selecting activities for your setting.

Note that awareness-building campaigns like Bell Let’s Talk, Headstrong, and Elephant in the Room, can help to start the conversation and to normalize the experience of mental health problems.

In order to optimize impact, these sorts of initiatives are best offered in the context of a wider school-based strategy. Providing developmentally appropriate mental health awareness and literacy for students, as part of regular instruction, is a good way to build knowledge and reduce stigma over time.

Students have a lot to say when it comes to mental health and stigma reduction. When peer leaders normalize the experience of social and emotional problems, it can be a powerful validation for students. Providing a safe platform for student voices related to stigma reduction, requires careful planning, good principles of student engagement, and designated / supported adult allies. There are several excellent groups in Ontario that are leading the way in meaningful youth engagement and stigma reduction, like jack.org and The New Mentality.

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