Today is Bell Let’s Talk Day, an anti-stigma mental health awareness campaign sponsored by the Canadian telecom company Bell. Similar to the UK organization Time to Change’s Time To Talk Day coming up on February 7, the goal is to get people talking about mental health and mental illness.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the book The Stigma Effect and what it had to say about the types of anti-stigma effects that are effective as well as those that are ineffective. It’s main point was that actual contact with people who have mental illness is by far the most effective strategy, and education/awareness campaigns don’t accomplish a lot, and in some cases they may even be counterproductive.
There are a lot of great organizations out there that are committed to fighting stigma: Time To Change, Sick Not Weak, Stigma Fighters, and the list goes on and on. These organizations certainly accomplish a lot within the mental health community by getting dialogue going and giving people opportunities to share their stories with others. I wonder, though, if they are mostly preaching to the choir, or if the message truly getting out. It probably doesn’t help that pretty much any health condition has a day, a week, or a month, making it hard to stand out in the field.
Even when people do choose to engage in one-off awareness days, how much of an impact is it actually having? Sure, people can feel good about tweeting something in support, but does that necessarily correspond to changes in attitudes or behaviours? It’s easy for someone to tweet that people should talk about mental illness, but unless that changes how they respond a friend disclosing their illness, it hasn’t done a whole lot of good. The Stigma Effect referred to this phenomenon as slacktivism – token support that’s not associated with any real behavioural change.
Far too often, mental illness is the elephant in the room; even when it’s clearly there, people are reluctant to acknowledge its existence, much less talk about it. Still, talking about mental illness in the abstract on an awareness day is not necessarily going to do anything about said elephant.
Stigma isn’t necessarily due to a lack of awareness or knowledge, in which case awareness-focused campaigns aren’t hitting the target. I work in mental health, and that did nothing to stop the stigma I experienced from the managers who thought I was unpredictable and potentially dangerous. They knew quite a bit about mental illness, and they were used to seeing it – except among patients, not staff. For me as a nurse to have a mental illness, and heaven forbid to speak up about it, went entirely against expected norms.
It would be easy to use that to say people should keep quiet in the workplace about mental illness. Yet stigma is fuelled by silence. It exists when there is a line drawn between “us” and “them”, when the “other” is minimized and dehumanized. To counter those kinds of attitudes, we need to be loud rather than quiet, and show that there really is no “them” because mental illness truly can happen to any of us.
Research shows that the best way to combat stigma is for people to actually have contact with individuals living with mental illness. There’s no shortage of us out there with mental illness, but people within our community need to feel empowered to speak up and disclose their illnesses. Of course, fear of stigma can make that very difficult.
And maybe that’s where the anti-stigma campaigns come in. Maybe it’s less important the effect they have on society on a broader scale, and more important that they give us the confidence to identify ourselves as people with mental illness and tell our stories. If someone shares a story on the Time To Change website, perhaps most of the people reading that story will also have a mental illness. Yet if that person then finds the courage to talk to their family, friends, and coworkers about their illness, that will bring all of those people a step closer to realizing that there is no “us” and “them” when it comes to mental illness. That counts for a whole lot more than a token supportive tweet on Time to Talk day.
So, if the elephant in the room could speak, it would be a chorus of all of us with mental illness raising our voices and saying we are here, we live with mental illness, and we’re not going anywhere. Stigma thrives in silence, so we need to roar, and that’s why I speak up on this Bell Let’s Talk Day.