Antistigma strategies work

Although the mountain of stigma surrounding mental illness is far from being conquered entirely, it appears as though raising awareness is helping to chip it away.

Measures such as direct advertising, mental health screening by health care providers and increased exposure and advocacy from celebrities have helped to improve attitudes toward mental illness over the past decade.

According to a recent study in the US, demand for mental health services is up in recent years and people are reporting more positive feelings about mental health issues and treatment.

Canadian statistics will differ somewhat, but I believe the trend is the same in both countries. Increased exposure and awareness are working to change the way we think of mental illness.

Today it is more acceptable to seek treatment for a mental health problem. People are becoming less ashamed to get help when needed and are less embarrassed to speak about it with friends.

Statistics in the US study showed an increase of over five percent from 10 years ago in the number of people who said they felt 'very comfortable' speaking with a professional about personal problems.

Unfortunately, the numbers still only jumped to 32 percent of people surveyed who claimed to feel this comfortable, which means that more than two thirds of the population still feels somewhat uncomfortable about seeking help for a mental health problem.

Stigma still exists and continues to be one of the most serious barriers to improving mental health in our society.

Young people between the ages of 18 and 34 experienced the greatest shift in positive attitude toward mental health treatment and are increasingly the demographic being targeted in new strategies to improve understanding about mental health issues.

One strategy proving effective in some European countries is to bring a person with a serious mental illness into classrooms to speak with students. The rationale is by getting to know an individual with an illness it may help to increase openness toward others with illnesses such as schizophrenia. Classroom exposure and conversation can battle misconceptions about the diseases.

Stigma causes many people to be fearful of the mentally ill. Recent surveys in Austria and Switzerland examined how the public, relatives and mental health professionals view social contact with individuals who have schizophrenia.

Not surprisingly, mental health professionals and relatives of the mentally ill were generally more likely than the general public to accept contact with schizophrenic individuals. However, even these groups became increasingly less comfortable with contact as it became more intimate.

For example, while those surveyed may have felt reasonably comfortable having a person with schizophrenia as a neighbour, they were less comfortable with the idea of having such a person as an employee, family member or babysitter.

A major reason for social distance was perceived dangerousness of people with schizophrenia, a common misconception about most people with this illness.

All of these findings can help shape future programs promoting awareness and aimed at reducing stigma for the mentally ill. Better education about mental health issues continues to be a critical tool in the quest to raise awareness.

Classroom projects such as those mentioned above have led to marked changes in attitude in places where they have been used, and this may be a model to consider in Canada as well.

I am in favour of all initiatives to help break barriers to treatment and help us live alongside our friends, family and neighbours who struggle with mental health issues every day.


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