Apple Magazine

Confronting the stigma of mental illness

Attitudes toward the disease can be as devastating as the symptoms

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Imagine you broke your leg and didn’t go to the doctor because you were afraid people would think badly of you. That is precisely what many people living with mental illness feel. In fact, the stigma attached to mental illness can often be more crippling than the illness itself.

"Stigma is the reason two-thirds of Canadians living with mental illness do not seek help,” says Michael Pietrus, the director of Opening Minds with the Mental Health Commission of Canada, which is based in Calgary. “They’re afraid of being labelled or having the association of mental illness—being thought of as crazy or dangerous. The flipside is people might say it’s all in your imagination, or you’re using it as an excuse for attention.”

In its Canadian Community Health Survey in 2002, Statistics Canada found one in five Canadians experience some measure of mental illness every year, including depression and anxiety. Even so, mental illness is surrounded by many misconceptions. Media and popular culture perpetuate negative images of those with mental illness as violent, dangerous or weak-minded. The truth of the matter is people living with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of crimes than criminals, and mental illness is as real and serious a health issue as cancer.

Such stigma is of particular concern for children. Many parents won’t tell anyone their child has a mental illness because they think it reflects poorly on them. Unfortunately, “only one in six kids who are with a mental health problem gets treatment,” says Pietrus.

And then there are all the kids who don’t even get diagnosed. Since mental illness typically begins to manifest in the teen years, early diagnosis and treatment are critical.

So how can you help break down this stigma? You can learn about mental illness and encourage education programs in schools and workplaces. Reach out if you see someone having problems. Pietrus points out, “if someone goes off work for cancer treatment, there is a lot of fanfare—cards, letters, flowers. When people go off work for a mental illness, there is nothing of the sort. Instead, they are often ostracized. For friends, co-workers and even family to react this way, or to tell someone their problem doesn’t really exist and is all in their head is very hurtful.”

— Colleen Seto