Changing attitudes and preventing stigma and discrimination

Mary O’Hagan, programme lead – Like Minds, Like Mine, shares her reflections and experience from the International Initiative for Mental Health Leadership (IIMHL) international exchange, where she learned more about the work done by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) to reduce stigma and discrimination. 

In 2019, the IIMHL matches were in the United States and Canada, with the Network Meeting in Washington DC.  The 2021 IIMHL and IIDL Leadership Exchange will be held across Aotearoa and Australia. The matches will be held across the two countries with the two-day network meeting held in Christchurch at Te Pae Convention Centre. The Mental Health Foundation will likely have a role, perhaps hosting a match on mental health promotion).

I was part of the changing attitudes and preventing stigma and discrimination IIMHL exchange in September 2019 hosted by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. 

Participants came from a variety of different backgrounds and represented a range of organisations from Canada, the USA and New Zealand.

Challenging stigma and discrimination

Changing Directions, Changing Lives: The Mental Health Strategy for Canada calls on all Canadians to reduce stigma. The MHCC is working to reduce stigma in every area of its work. 

Its Opening Minds initiative, in partnership with some 110 organisations, aims to reduce discrimination by changing negative behaviours and attitudes often associated with mental health problems and mental illnesses.

This match shared some of the latest research and effective, evidence-based approaches for reducing stigma in two key areas: the workplace and healthcare. 

The Working Mind

Participants heard from researchers who evaluated the programmes and an employer who was an earlier adopter of The Working Mind - an education-based programme designed to promote mental health and reduce the stigma of mental illness in a workplace setting.

The big takeaway for me was evidence that suggests the impact of ‘anti-stigma’ education in primary health is more sustained if practitioners are also given tools to work with people experiencing mental distress. 

My presentation was focused on programmes to reduce discrimination in English speaking countries. Challenges include mission drift where programmes often focus on help seeking and help giving rather than inclusion and human rights. The role of lived experience leadership is well established in most programmes. 

I also discussed the continuing debate around the stigmatising impact of medical language. I challenged programmes to start to address the elephant in the room – the discrimination inherent in laws that authorise coercion for people with mental distress, which create lower thresholds for coercion than for the rest of the population.