The keynote speaker at the Mental Health Symposium* was Dr. David Goldbloom, a psychiatrist with a succulent C.V. The subject of his address was mental illness and stigma.
In terms of how we talk about and treat people with mental illnesses, we’ve come a long way since the days of lunatics and asylums,but we still have plenty of room for improvement. According to a survey of random Canadians conducted in June 2008:
- 50% of us would treat a family member’s mental illness as a secret.
- 46% of us believe that mental illness is used as an excuse for poor behaviour and personal failing.
- 58% of us would socialize with someone with a mental illness
- 12% of us would hire a lawyer with a mental illness
- 11% of us would hire a doctor with a mental illness.
Hardly surprising, then, that many people suffering from mental illnesses keep it to themselves, even to the point of not seeking treatment. Or that those who recover from mental illnesses tend not to talk about it later, which in turn perpetuates the myth that people don’t recover from mental illness.
Did you know that deliveries of flowers, gifts and get-well cards to hospital psychiatric wards are about half that of other wards, largely because friends, colleagues and acquaintances are politely averting their eyes from the embarrassing spectacle of mental illness? This is stigma at work.
Dr. Goldbloom pointed out that the most popular show on TV these days is CSI, which depicts stereotypes of people with mental illnesses as axe-wielding psychotic murderers, even though this is clearly at odds with the profile of a typical person with a mental illness. He noted, too, that you’re at far greater risk of being murdered by your partner than by a mentally ill stranger.
Here’s an interesting bit of trivia. The 19th century equivalent of mental illness, in terms of stigma, was tuberculosis. The equivalent in the 20th century (or at least the first 70 years of it) was cancer. This got my attention! I had no idea that 40 years ago people wouldn’t mention cancer in public. People sometimes whispered “The Big C,” but avoided saying the word out loud. Patients were sometimes even protected from any knowledge of their own cancer by their doctors and families!
Times have changed for cancer, thank God, but not yet for mental illness.
The language of obituaries, according to Dr. Goldbloom, is the language of culture. You frequently read in the obituaries the phrase “following a courageous battle with cancer.” But the code for suicide is “died suddenly,” in combination with a request for donations to ‘the charity of your choice.’
In this way, says Dr. Goldbloom, the stigma of mental illness is perpetuated into death.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada just launched a 10-year campaign to destigmatize mental illness, which will focus, initially, on youth and health professionals. It’s called Opening Minds.
Statistics Canada will be conducting regular surveys of Canadians to determine the impact of the campaign on public attitudes about mental illness.
*The Mental Health Symposium took place on October 5, 2009, in Ottawa, and was co-hosted by The Canadian Mental Health Association, The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, the University of Ottawa’s Department of Psychiatry, and the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Mental Health Research. This is the first of two or three posts about this event. The next one will look at Ottawa’s Mental Health Courts.