How to end stigma the other 364 days of the year #BellLetsTalk

Today is Bell Canada’s annual #BellLetsTalk campaign, where Bell encourages Canadians to talk, text, or tweet about mental illness to end the stigma.

The campaign always includes an unofficial dialogue online by folks concerned about the campaign being too corporate/brand driven and drawing attention away from the issue itself. And while that’s true (when’s the last time you tweeted a flurry in recognition of the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health Day?) it at least, for one day, puts the discussion of mental health front and centre in Canada.

But what about the other 364 days of the year?

Every day thousands of Canadians do their best to hide their conditions and appear “normal”. If only normal had no perceived definition of behaviour. This fight to be normal and like normal things and act like a normal person is what makes mental illness that much harder to cope with. But in hiding our conditions to appear “normal”, we are validating the stigma – that mental illness is shameful. We need to start to work at changing the perceived norms so those with mental illness can be managed and supported head-on

Which is not easy to do. Human beings are cruel. We judge. We have expectations. We have been conditioned. If something or someone falls offside, we shame and we exclude. The mistakes and oddities are pointed out again and again. So while Clara Hughes and Mary Walsh and Michael Landsberg and Howie Mandel can stand forward and be public figures for depression and alcoholism and OCD, what about the everyday Canadian who is afraid of losing their job, or even getting a job in the first place?

Somewhere in the everyday the stigma needs to be broken. As a post-secondary educator, my heart breaks when I hear of another Canadian college or university student taking their life due to anxiety or depression or not being able cope. (Un?)fortunately, most of the time this news does not hit mainstream to discourage copycats and martyrism, which doesn’t reduce the need to sit up and take notice.  My guess for those suffering alone and feel the only out is suicide is that there is a fear of getting help – that it means a sign of weakness. Or maybe they felt not one would understand? Or guilt, that they should be able to cope because they perceive everyone else can?

I would be devastated if one of my students felt so overwhelmed and alone that they felt the only answer is to take their life. In an effort to circumvent having to experience that pain, three years ago after I got answers for my mental health, I decided to step forward for my students so they can see there is a future, even when your mental health is precarious. I made a decision to come clean with my students.

With the start of every course, I now fully disclose my mental health conditions to the class. I share with them what they are, what it actually means (versus commonly held opinions), how it affects me, and how I manage it (sleep and proper nutrition!). I explain what happens on my bad days. All alongside telling them about the successes in my life – to see that it doesn’t have to hold you back.  In doing so, I create a platform for my students discuss and consider the importance of mental health. For those in the room who struggle with mental health conditions perceived or diagnosed, they have (sometimes for the first time) someone in a leadership position who can serve as a role model for making it work. Or they know they have someone who understands. Or for those without a condition, to see mental health is just that, a condition, and not something that defines a person.

This openness changes the discussion. Students don’t feel the need to dance around their problems – diagnosed or perceived. Those with diagnoses step up in a new way – feeling brave to just tell me about how their bad days are affecting their work, and we can make solutions. My students usually already have university degrees, and struggled to earn it due to lack of supports.  For many, talking to me becomes one of the few times in their lives someone in authority “believes” or understands them. There is indeed a difference between the “ugh, I’m soooo stressed/depressed” crowd and the “I suffer from anxiety/depression” crowd once you get in tune with the language used by students in the two categories – and the latter group appreciates it immensely when someone is able to differentiate their message.

It also changes the discussion with students who might not have diagnoses, but are simply managing stress as a student juggling jobs and family. I can help all of them with perspective so they feel empowered in deciding something as seemingly simple as getting a proper night’s sleep or stopping to eat a healthy meal as more important than being perfect on a paper, which wards off potential new mental health cases. The dialogue and balance in the classroom entirely changes. And it’s been amazing to experience.

There is an additional bonus for me: the liberation of disclosing my conditions. My students have inadvertently become partners for managing my mental health. They observe more what makes me a good teacher even when I declare a bad day, and they are open (because I invite it) to give me feedback about what worked for them, and what didn’t. This feedback usually (but not always) comes from the students with the diagnosed conditions, I think as they figure out their own methods of coping/managing. I feel learning this has actually made teaching easier for me as a whole, reducing my perfectionism, and delivering a more engaging classroom experience.

I can do this in a public institution, especially one so focused on student success. Now, what of industry?

It’s hard. A deadline is a deadline. Employers and clients have requirements and expectations. Those with mental health conditions are terrible at follow-up and at times with planning when overwhelmed or overstimulated. Unfortunately, there are only so many “having a bad day” cards one can use before others lose confidence in you.  It isn’t easy. I work at figuring it out every day. But I feel if students learn more about themselves in a positive environment and discover what they need to do their best, they will know how to find the right opportunities for them in terms of work culture and job expectations.

And of course, my alterior motive: if I can make this small change by influencing people while they are in a place of learning, they will hopefully in turn contribute to removing the stigma of mental health within their teams as they grow into positions of leadership.

And that is what I do to help end the mental health stigma in Canada the other 364 days a year. What about you?

All of Ontario’s public post-secondary institutions offer counselling services and disability accommodation. If you are a student at an Ontario college or university and you have a diagnoses for a mental health condition, you are eligible for accommodation! Even if you don’t, many mental health conditions are a reaction to stress and you deserve support as well. Look for information on you campus about counselling services, student services, disability office/centre on campus, or inquire with your faculty, program administrators, campus administrators, security personnel, or student union. International students studying at Ontario colleges and universities, your school’s international office may also be a great resource for support, especially if you’re struggling with homesickness or culture shock.

The Government of Ontario now offers a hotline for post-secondary students in crisis. If you are a student in an Ontario college or university and find yourself in a mental health crisis, feeling alone, with no one to talk to, at any time of day, please contact GOOD2TALK (call 1-866-925-5454 | ), and know there are people who care and want to help you.

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