Breaking the stigma of mental illness

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By Leo Glavine

From Province House to Home


As the Liberal Health Critic, I see the many pressures of our health care system and understand the need to do more with less. I also see the pain and hear the very real stories from our most vulnerable citizens, many of whom are not being helped in the way they need.


One of the most pressing health care issues facing Nova Scotians is mental illness. The current government has not taken the significant actions that are required. One in five Nova Scotians will suffer from mental illness at some point in their lives, primarily anxiety, depression and, thanks to our brave men and women in the Canadian Forces, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). There is a great deal that needs to be done to make appropriate services available to Nova Scotians with mental illness. We need timely access to services, we need better medical coverage for those in need and, most of all, we need early intervention for both children and adults.


We also need an understanding of how devastating mental illness can be and that is just that, an illness. The stigma against mental illness can be devastating to those suffering. They are sick and they need help and understanding, yet this stigma makes it difficult to seek mental health services.


Someone with cancer would not be told to “try harder” or told to “shake it off.” We recognize them as sick and we help them seek care. This is not the experience of far too many with mental illness. The view that mental illness is simply a weakness is even found in our health care system. So much so that the IWK and the Canadian Mental Health Commission have launched a campaign to educate and try to reverse this damaging discrimination within our health care system.


Nearly four per cent of all hospital admissions in Canada are due to mental illness, but patients still report being belittled or talked down to in emergency rooms and clinics, and this is by the people who are meant to help. I do acknowledge there are many wonderful mental health professionals in our province who do invaluable work.


Stigma is based on fear or lack of understanding and it affects all people suffering from a mental illness. It is found in workplaces, in school and in our communities. Stigma is the single biggest barrier facing the mentally ill. People don’t want to be labelled and judged. Half of Canadians who suffer from depression have never been to see their family doctor or a mental health clinician with their problem. That is a sad statement. These are people who are ill and need help, and the earlier they get that help, the better they will be and the less it will cost our economy and our society.


Suicide is the leading cause of death not only in adolescents, but all the way through the life cycle.


Our government needs to do better in serving the mentally ill and educating the rest of us but this is not just a job for bureaucrats and politicians. We all need to do better, considering one in five Nova Scotians will experience mental illness in their lifetime and this is especially devastating to our young people. Seventy per cent of mental illness begins in youth and young adults under the age of 26. The challenge to government is to act decisively to provide services at the onset of illness. Science and their research data show that without a doubt early intervention works to lower the severity and improve the future of those who are facing mental illness.


Our schools and related community programs need to become the new battleground to improve mental health, identify problems, provide diagnosis and treatment. With a school system that has had its budget cut by $6.5 million, the ability to make an immediate and major impact is limited. We owe it to these many Nova Scotians and their families to do better.


Organizations: Province House, Canadian Forces, Canadian Mental Health Commission

Geographic location: Nova Scotians, Canada

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Recent comments

  • Frank Blankenship
    November 08, 2012 - 09:28

    "Mental illness" is no longer "real" where the person so described has completely recovered. People can and do recover from allegedly "serious mental illnesses". In fact, people who are "convicted" of "mental illness" are prosecuted/treated on the basis of a hearing, and not a trial by jury. This "mental illness" is seldom proved by courts let alone by the so called "experts". Although we don't speak of a "stigma" against mental health, maybe we should. 1 in 5 Nova Scotians may consult a mental health profession, but 1 in 5 Nova Scotians will not experience "mental illness". Problems in living are not "illnesses", and the solution to those problems are not to be found in talk of the mark of Cain or the devil, that is, "stigma".

  • Harold A. Maio
    November 01, 2012 - 23:20

    The" stigma" of mental illness may be a convenient description, but the real issue is the prejudice and discrimination that people experience. Calling that “stigma” all too conveniently masks those realities. There is a second issue: If our knowledge as a public, is so limited, and it is, who is responsible? While people are chasing the innuendo “stigma,” those people failing to educate us continue to fail us. I would rather have clear information about mental illnesses, as we do about physical illnesses, than one suggestion of “stigma.”

  • Frank Andreae
    November 01, 2012 - 17:32

    There is no stigma against mental illness; There is only irrational stigma. The vast bulk of mental patients recover quickly and live normal lives. Mental illness and creativity go hand in hand. Newton, Churchill, Frost, Hemmingway were not underachievers . Rather, I's said that the average person in North America has an 8th grade reading level.