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Why We Must Redefine Mental Health

This article was submitted by: Elizabeth B.



Imagine living in a society where all people who have red hair are considered suspicious and harmful. Prejudice and discrimination against red-haired people are part of the accepted social matrix. You might not think a lot about the situation unless you are born with red hair.

Now imagine everyone tells you that your unfortunate red hair color is a condition you could change if only you followed people’s good advice and “snapped out of it.” Your seeming unwillingness to do what is best for you is labeled a character defect, something you could change with your character if only you would.

Your red hair limits your housing availability, your earning potential, your economic stability, and your potential for happiness. Your “laziness” and “unwillingness” to magically change your hair color is your downfall. 

You are defeated mentally and spiritually, simply because you cannot change your hair color with your thinking, despite what others tell you.

The Stigma that Surrounds Mental Health

This imaginary situation portrays the quite real social condition of stigma, a combination of prejudice and discrimination that affects at least one in five Canadians who live with mental illnesses. 

Stigma in the realm of mental health is the result of mislabeling of mental health issues with words like “lazy,” “crazy,” and “insane,”. When people tell you there is nothing wrong with you except your laziness and stubbornness, you are unlikely to go to a medical professional for help. And if you are courageous and desperate enough to seek help, you experience shame for needing the treatment.

The Cost of the Stigma Surrounding Mental Health

The cost of the stigma surrounding mental health is devastatingly high. About 11 people die each day from suicide in Canada. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for those between the ages of 15 and 34. In any given week, about 500,000 employed Canadians are unable to work because of a mental illness.

Part of this toll is preventable by eliminating the stigma that people with mental health issues contend with every day.

Redefining Mental Health

Redefining mental health involves a willingness to accept that patients have a treatable illness rather than a moral failing. Education and open discussion about mental health conditions are ways that we can begin to reconsider how we think and feel about mental illness. Getting the myths out of the way and bringing mental health conditions into the light for what they are - treatable health issues - will go a long way toward helping fellow Canadians get the treatment they need to live happier, more fulfilling lives.

How You Can Help

  • Pay attention to the words you use when discussing people with mental health issues. Don’t tell your friends someone is “crazy” or “schizo,” and discourage others from doing so. Be willing to inform your companions that mental illnesses are treatable medical conditions.
  • Remember that two out of three people suffering from a mental health issue will suffer in silence rather than risk your rejection. It takes an enormous amount of courage to ask for help. If your friend or loved one opens up to you, be a kind and compassionate listener. Avoid offering your unsolicited advice. Words can unintentionally hurt more than they help.
  • Hold an open discussion at your workplace or school about mental health. Bell Let’s Talk Toolkit contains materials designed to aid in this non-judgemental discussion about mental health issues. Education is the key to understanding mental illness and reducing stigma.
  • Be sure you know what to do if someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis. This page from the Canadian Association of Suicide Prevention can help you locate a crisis center. If you or a loved one is in danger of suicide, call 911 immediately. Don’t assume your loved one is just being dramatic - lives have been tragically lost to this common misconception.

We must respect the bravery, strength, determination, and resilience of those with mental health conditions the same way we do those qualities in cancer patients if we hope to eliminate the stigma. This compassionate approach to mental health, combined with education and open conversation, can save lives and create a better future for everyone.