Together Against Stigma Conference

Art on display at Stigma Conference

“Stigma prevents people from seeking help and prevents many others from providing it.” – David Goldbloom

“At one point I wondered if becoming an outspoken advocate for mental health would affect my career.” – Actress Glenn Close

“My mom was told, she’s not depressed. She’s just lazy and spoiled.” – Erin Hodgson

“We are treating more people with physical disorders in poor countries than mental disorders in rich countries.” – Graham Thornicroft

I came home yesterday from the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s Together Against Stigma Conference. Wow. Those were three jam packed days, full of good content with people in attendance from around the world. There were folks from Japan, Spain, Denmark, the US, the United Kingdom and the list goes on.

I was surprised to hear speakers say that stigma is getting worse, not better – despite the reality that the public has become more educated about mental illnesses being medical brain disorders. Bernice Pescosolido, for example, noted that if you believe that mental illness is in the genes, then you are more likely to stigmatize. Why? “Because now it’s permanent.” I heard no one at the conference deny that mental illnesses were medical conditions and many of the speakers were medical professionals.  It was noted that science is useful, but the message of inclusion is really the important one. Over and over, people said that direct contact with those who live with mental illness, either live or via video helps to reduce stigma. Norman Sartorius noted that if you just provide knowledge about mental illness people just become more prejudiced. Knowledge is only useful if you also increase competence in dealing with problems and combine it with structural change, for example, laws. Anthony Jorm described mental health literacy as knowledge that you put to practical use, not just knowing about brain disorders.

Stigma amongst health care providers was discussed. Graham Thornicroft noted that if mental health workers only see people who don’t do well and are not seeing people when they are doing better, that can add to stigma. Peter Bryne noted that a major source of stigma and discrimination are the health care providers themselves. Thomas Ungar said that research has shown that patients with a history of depression receive poorer treatment for physical conditions. People with mental health diagnosis in general receiving poorer treatment for physical ailments was also discussed. Ungar recommended multiple stigma interventions for different learning groups. For health care providers, he talked about the biological information about mental illness helping to reduce stigma.

Another population discussed at the conference was youth. Heather Stuart noted that stigma impact shows an age gradient. People under twenty five years old bear the brunt and are most affected by stigma. She said that anti-stigma programs should be offered over a longer period of time in schools, not just as “one offs” and she recommended they incorporate direct and video contact with those who live with mental illnesses.

The above are just a few of the highlights that stood out to me. There was a ton of information in the conference. I took over 16 pages of notes and I was not jotting everything down! Nor could I attend everything. There were many break out sessions that overlapped. I was often torn – wanting to go to multiple sessions that occurred at the same time. Twitter came in handy on such occasions. There were a number of people sending out notes from the conference over Twitter. I was able to see those notes or “tweets” from other sessions as I sat in the one I had chosen. Pretty cool.

The most powerful part of all of it for me were the personal stories. There were lots of these – from people who have mental illness and from family members. Andrea and Michelle Zoephel, a mother and daughter team, were amongst those who spoke. Their story was touching. Michelle developed schizophrenia at a very young age and her mom, Andrea, was the main support. Andrea recalls watching her daughter be taken to hospital by police in handcuffs at the age of twelve because she was ill. It was heart wrenching to hear.

The two have started a website called  EMIS, which stands for Eliminate Mental Illness Stigma. It’s new and still under construction but sounds very promising. Give it some time to develop and check it out. They gave out fuzzy EMIS pins at the conference and invited us to take several so we can give them to others we know. They’ll be conversation pieces and, if folks ask about them (and they will), they’ll provide an opportunity to start a conversation about mental illness and stigma. We need more of those conversations. I took a handful.

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