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Michael Kimber writes about his experinces in trying to overcome the stigma associated with mental illness. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Michael Kimber writes about his experinces in trying to overcome the stigma associated with mental illness. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)


Mentally ill and 'out' but not yet embraced Add to ...

In fact, they are far more likely to be victims of violence, or a danger to themselves. And while people with untreated schizophrenia have a higher risk of violence than the population as a whole, these cases are extremely rare, and crimes against strangers are even more so.

Facts aside, and even though one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness, our phobias are firmly entrenched: In a 2008 national survey commissioned by the Canadian Medical Association, one in four Canadians said they would be fearful about being around someone with a serious mental illness. More than half said they would be unlikely to marry someone (or hire a lawyer, child-care provider or financial planner, family doctor, or even a landscaper) with a mental illness.

“There is really very little evidence that there has been a change in the attitudes toward people with mental illness,” says Ross Norman, a University of Western Ontario psychology professor who studies the nature of stigma. Research on stigma, in general, has suggested that it originates from a sense that the individual is personally responsible for his or her situation – so in the past decade, for instance, anti-stigma campaigns have stressed the biological and hereditary factors behind mental illness. Subsequent research shows that while people believed the science, it didn't do much to change their attitudes, and if anything it shored up the belief that mental illness was an intractable and unpredictable condition, that, as Dr. Ross puts it, “there was something wrong with their brains.”

That's where people like Mr. Kimber, and other well-spoken, professional people come in, Dr. Ross suggests, by countering stereotypes and creating positive role models. “It's probably one of the best ways of making a difference,” he says.

People within Canada's mental-health community, including patients themselves and family members who had watched loved ones become lost in the system, began speaking out in the 1980s. Many went on to play key roles in the organizations that now advocate for better treatment and funding. Among those early spokespeople was June Conway Beeby, in Kingston, Ont., who began telling the tragic story of her son who committed suicide in 1981 after a long history with schizophrenia.

“I wasn't going to hide what happened to Matthew,” she says. “I wanted people to know that he had a terrible illness, and how we received very poor treatment, very little treatment at all, in fact.” Friends and family assumed that her son had been on drugs, that he was the victim of a deal gone wrong. People stopped talking when she passed by at work, or they avoided her completely. “I can make sure the world knows what happened to my precious boy,” she thought, and she began giving speeches and speaking out in the media. She didn't spare the details: She found her son in his apartment, lying in a pool of blood with dinner knives plunged through his eyes where he had pounded them into his brain. “Now you know where my efforts come from,” she says.

For her, the stigma is slow in changing – the education campaigns often miss the point.

“Prevention is a mug's game,” she says. By her reasoning, the surest way to fight stigma is to improve access to treatment and hospital beds, especially for more severe cases of mental illness. Every act of violence highlighted in the media, she points out, sets back any effort to educate the public. “Why wouldn't they feel stigma and fear?”

Political correctness can teach the right language, but how deeply does it change attitudes?

For a decades, Andrea Schluter, now a 47-year-old natural history painter in Vancouver, tried to keep her depression quiet. A graduate student in wildlife biology, she knew all too well what her peers in the field thought: “They equated depression with cowardice, particularly if you were suicidal.”

In the 1990s, she was admitted to hospital in a manic state, and felt she had to write about it publicly: “I recall the realization that I had been thrown, violently, into another world,” she explains. “And I knew, with every cell in my body carrying the genetic set-up for this sickness of the mind, that I would need to find a way to live in that world.”

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