Stop the Stigma

#BellLetsTalk and the Stigma Elephant in the Room

What if the mental illness elephant in the room could speak? - watercolour elephant

Today is Bell Let’s Talk Day (#BellLetsTalk), 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 of #BellLetsTalk is to get people talking about mental health and mental illness.

Recently, I wrote about the book The Stigma Effect and what it said about the types of anti-stigma effects that are effective as well as those that are ineffective. Its 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. In some cases, they may even be counterproductive.

Preaching to the choice?

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; it makes it pretty hard to stand out in the field.

The issue of slacktivism

Even when people do choose to engage in one-off awareness days like Bell Let’s Talk Day, how much of an impact is it actually having? Sure, people can feel good about tweeting something in support, but does that 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.

Is awareness the problem?

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 isn’t 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 went entirely against expected norms. The fact that I actually spoke up about it was even more frowned upon.

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. We need to show that there really is no “them” because mental illness truly can happen to any of us.

Speaking up

Research shows that the best way to combat stigma is for people to actually have contact with individuals living openly 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 #BellLetsTalk or 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 #BellLetsTalk Day.

Book cover: A Brief History of Stigma by Ashley L. Peterson

My latest book, A Brief History of Stigma, looks at the nature of stigma, the contexts in which it occurs, and how to challenge it most effectively.

You can find it on Amazon and Google Play.

Mental illness: Stop the stigma - graphic of face and megaphone with the words "speak up"

You can find more on mental illness stigma on the Stop the Stigma page.

24 thoughts on “#BellLetsTalk and the Stigma Elephant in the Room”

  1. Fabulous information! I have been on both sides of mental illness: as a patient who suffers from CPTSD, and as a DSP for a very troubled girl who was placed in a public home for those with Intelligence Impairment. I was told she was banned from her school, after pushing a girl out the third story, glass window. I didn’t have the training to be in her house, but as God would have it, I was there for months. I remember the day I tiptoed into her bedroom, and introduced myself. Everyone was terrified of her, and I was uneasy as well. The face of an angel looked up at me, and I sat on the bed and softly caressed her hair-whispering soothing words. It wasn’t until two days later that I realized her insanely rich parents had put her in a home because she was bipolar. I miss that angel, to this day~

  2. This is a wonderful way to reach many people and I love that Bell is doing this campaign. I just posted a short blog post about this also because I believe the more people that become aware the better off we all will be. Mental health is something that we are all touched by. Thank you for helping spread the word as well! ❤️

  3. I love this post, Ashley! You did such a wonderful job. My last job outside out writing was in a residential group home as what would be considered an assistant manager. I took care of individuals with specials needs who also had various mental disorders. You would think that managers and employees would be more understanding of mental health working in that field.

    I will never forget the day I had a full blown panic attack at work. I will never forget how they treated me afterward. My one boss acted as if I had some contagious disease and not a mental health disorder. They treated me like I was no longer human. It is one of the worst feelings.

    There were many other issues I ran into while working there once it was out that I was bipolar. People treated me like I was dangerous (as you had mentioned), incompetent, and like I was, in general, just this bad person. I quit that company after having a mental break down and the first thing my boss did, was informed others of this. It was just horrible.

    It is great that Bell is doing this! I wonder if they have a day like this in the US that I may not be aware of or that has slipped my mind. Ashley, would it be okay to reblog this on My Bipolar Mind? After I started my blog and become open about my own mental health, it was like this weight was lifted off my shoulders. I no longer felt the need to sit in silence.

    1. Sure you can reblog 🙂
      I haven’t heard of anything like this in the US. NAMI’s got an awareness day, but I don’t know how much is actually done for that.
      I find it so disturbing that employers who should know better treat us like we’re total nutbars. No wonder there’s stigma in the general population.

  4. Have you seen the arguments surrounding Ban.do’s line of mental health necklaces. There was a lot of backlash from people saying that they were romanticizing mental illness, and I saw one tweet where someone said that people shouldn’t wear them and be “proud” about their mental illness because they have a problem. I really disagreed with it all. As someone who struggles with multiple forms of mental illness, I actually am looking into purchasing one. I think its important for people to understand that the image that they have of depression, or anxiety isn’t always accurate. I can be high-functioning, and an effective employee and friend, despite having the diagnoses that I have. In addition, they are a part of who I am, and I feel that if I did not talk about those experiences, I wouldn’t be true to myself.

  5. I think this is a great initiative and I hope it helps. But I think that before we can teach others about mental illness we have to feel comfortable about it ourselves. Two of my young friends today posted about their depression on Facebook. I was so proud of them. I have recently started a blog on depression and although I wanted to make my Facebook and Twitter friends aware of my new venture, the day is almost over and my blog can still be found only by WordPress bloggers who happen to chance upon it. Hopefully in the next few weeks I will find the courage to share it with my friends.

  6. Wow, this is such a great post! Anyway to start and keep the conversation going will slowly help with the stigma of living with mental illness (well hopefully all illness.)

  7. “For me as a nurse to have a mental illness, and heaven forbid to speak up about it, went entirely against expected norms.” You’re right, it’s norms and expectations and long-held beliefs along with silence that fuel the judgements and stigma. I’m all for these ‘Let’s Talk’ initiatives to break some barriers, show people they’re not alone. But you’re right, there needs to be action. Silence is a breeding ground and no change will happen there. I’ll be rooooaaaring right along with you! Brilliant post =]
    Caz xx

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