How understanding stigma around mental illness can help us dismantle it

According to Marlene, Recreation Therapist, Mental Health and Addiction, understanding how stigma is created and experienced is the first step to learning how to break it down.

Marlene leads an anti-stigma group at Brampton Civic’s inpatient mental health program that covers this concept extensively. She gives us 101 as a group and shares some valuable tips on how we can help reduce stigma in our own lives and in our relationships.

Tell us about the anti-stigma group.

The purpose of the group is to define stigma and discuss how it can affect individuals including barriers to treatment, jobs, healthcare, friends, etc. This conversation is not limited to just mental health.

How does stigma arise?

Language and actions perpetuate stigma from both patient and public perspectives. Many people are unaware of their own role in perpetuating stigma. A common example is when people use mental health disorders to describe a person or thing, reducing the severity of mental illness.

Asking someone with a mental illness to just “quit” or “stop doing it” is like asking someone with a broken leg to “get up and walk it away.” The same goes for medications — treating psychiatric medications differently than medications you would take for a physical illness can perpetuate stigmatizing beliefs related to mental illness.

What are the different types of stigma we should be aware of?

Systemic stigma: When the system is intentionally or not structured in such a way that people with mental illness have less chance of succeeding than those without.

Public stigma: the reaction and reaction of the general population to people with mental illness, such as fear and exclusion.

Self-stigma: occurs when people with mental illness turn against themselves by internalizing ideas and beliefs that they are less valued because of their mental illness.

Knowing this, what actions can we take to reduce/reduce stigma?

Within the anti-stigma group at Brampton Civic, we’re thinking about strategies to change and overcome stigma. There is great power in educating others (family, friends, work colleagues, etc.) about the reality of our experiences and finding interest groups to join to encourage information sharing.

Also, an important part is recognizing any stigma you may carry around. It’s important to work on rethinking why you’re dealing with this stigma and changing your perspective.

How can we reverse the way stigma affects how we see ourselves?

Start by focusing on person-centered language. That way others see you as a person first and only then the diagnosis.

We can also focus on strengths-based interactions instead of deficit-based interactions. By focusing on and sharing your positive aspects first, rather than the areas that may need improvement, you can reinforce the positive qualities you see in yourself.

And what happens when we focus on and identify our strengths?

They become our superpowers. Some patients will find that their mental illness has made them more empathetic towards others, recognized their strength and courage, and given them a new, better perspective on life.

These strengths are superpowers when it comes to reducing self-stigma and perceived stigma by others.

What impact have you seen as a result of the anti-stigma program?

I see the impact when patients recognize their own self-stigma and realize they can change it. As patients change their own inner voice, their outer voice becomes louder.

As clients recognize their own role in the stigma that surrounds them, they also become stronger advocates for themselves. I have had many clients stop to chat with me after sessions and to let me know how empowered the group made them feel to have.

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