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Queen's University moves to combat mental-illness stigma

Queen's University Professor Heather Stuart pose for a portarit at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., on Monday Feb. 6, 2012.

Lars Hagberg for The Globe and Mail/lars hagberg The Globe and Mail

Queen's University, the very epicentre of campus mental-health concerns after enduring a series of student deaths since 2010, will host a new research chair dedicated to understanding and eliminating the stigma that lingers around mental illness.

On Tuesday, Queen's will name Heather Stuart, a professor of community health and epidemiology and a leading authority in the field, as the inaugural Bell Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair – believed to be the first of its kind in the world.

Driven in part by the lingering sting of the tragedies, some of which were acknowledged as suicides, it is the university's latest move to stake its ground as the leader among schools that are stepping up efforts to combat mental-health issues that have proliferated on campuses.

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The chair's funding, a $1-million gift from Bell Canada, is spread over five years and can be renewed after that. The aim is to help Dr. Stuart build a research team and analyze new survey data that could shed light on why so many people with mental illness still do not seek help.

"I really want to be able to give people who have a mental illness a voice to target programs where they're most needed, instead of where we think they should go," she said.

Although praised for her analytical prowess, Dr. Stuart is keen on a more personal approach, having grown up in a house on the grounds of a mental hospital in Guelph, Ont., where her mother was an administrator.

"As a kid, I played on the grounds; I made friends with the patients," she said. "That was my life. I never thought twice about what it was like to be stigmatized. I never felt any distance between people, and I never felt afraid."

Bell came across Dr. Stuart a year ago, when Mary Deacon, chair of the company's $50-million Let's Talk mental-health advocacy campaign, called to inquire about her work on an anti-stigma project at the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Ms. Deacon was stunned to hear no stigma-specific research chair existed. Bell soon decided Dr. Stuart should be the first, and Queen's agreed.

"I've always thought of chairs as beacons or lighthouses," Ms. Deacon said. "We need to rely on the best people out there, and she's it, and she's so close to home."

One in five Canadians experiences a clinical mental illness and many more struggle with stress or grief. Some 70 per cent of mental-health problems develop by adolescence, leaving university students especially vulnerable as they navigate a stressful period of transitions.

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Yet an estimated two-thirds of those with mental-health problems do not get professional help, partly for fear of being stigmatized if they speak up, and only half of Canadians would tell friends or co-workers they have a family member with a mental illness, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Even Bell admits to hesitating before choosing mental health as its cause – a sign of the negative associations that linger.

"There's no doubt that there was a little trepidation: Would it hurt our brand?" Ms. Deacon said. "It just sort of snowballed into the thing that we should do – to create the megaphone on the issue."

Queen's principal Daniel Woolf has seen an increase in students seeking help, and conceded last year the school was one of many battling long wait times for overstretched counselling services. The school has added extra counsellors and a new mental-health nurse, struck a Principal's Commission on the issue and beefed up "mental-health first aid" training for student leaders. Dr. Woolf said he now feels Queen's is making "great strides," with the new chair building on that momentum.

"I would say awareness of mental-health issues on campus is probably at an all-time high," Dr. Woolf said. "[They]have been swept under the carpet for far too long."

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Banking Reporter

James Bradshaw is banking reporter for the Report on Business. He covered media from 2014 to 2016, and higher education from 2010 to 2014. Prior to that, he worked as a cultural reporter for Globe Arts, and has written for both the Toronto section and the editorial page. More

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