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Watch your mouth when talking about mental health

Q&A with Andrew Szeto, director of the Campus Mental Health Strategy
January 25, 2017
Andrew Szeto, Director of Campus Mental Health Strategy

Andrew Szeto, director of University of Calgary's Campus Mental Health Strategy, says the stigma of mental illness can act as a powerful barrier against someone accessing the care they may need. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

She’s crazy. He’s nuts. They’re psycho. For the many Canadians who will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, language like this hurts — and reinforces a stigma that surrounds this important issue in our society. Mental illness does not discriminate. Mental illness impacts people of all ages, educational and income levels, and cultures.

On the University of Calgary’s campus, mental health is the top reason that employees access the Employee and Family Assistance Plan (EFAP) and accounts for 23 per cent of employee leave cases. For students, 25 per cent have been diagnosed or treated by a professional for a mental health condition and 12 per cent have seriously considered suicide in the past year.

The Campus Mental Health Strategy launched with a vision to be a community of caring. The strategy is moving forward with six focus areas and 28 recommendations to establish the university as a leader in the area of mental health and wellness.

Andrew Szeto is the director of the initiative, as well as a scholar in stigma reduction and anti-stigma programming. We asked him a few questions about how everyone can work to create a more welcoming environment.

Q: Why is it important to reduce the stigma toward mental illness?

A: One of the most important reasons to reduce the stigma of mental illness is that it acts as a barrier to someone accessing the care they need. Many people don’t seek help for fears that they may be viewed negatively or experience prejudice and discrimination, or have been treated poorly in the past because of their illness. Prejudice and discrimination occurs at work, at school, or even at home from family members and friends.

Q: What kind of behaviour or actions reinforce stigma and how can you work to change them?

A: I think for many, obvious discriminatory behaviours, like not hiring someone because of mental illness, or openly derogating a colleague with depression, come to mind. These things do reinforce stigma and should be stopped.

But, subtle behaviour is important and often overlooked, like avoiding someone because of their illness which sends a very powerful negative message to that person and those around them. Words like “crazy” or “psycho” are deeply entrenched in our vernacular. The media, whether it is the news, TV, or movies, also reinforces stereotypes. People with mental illnesses are often portrayed as dangerous or violent and they often don’t get better. We know these things are generally untrue.

We need to be aware of our own beliefs and realize that the things we do have an impact on others. We need to be better consumers of the information we see and read. Rather than taking a newspaper article or a portrayal of a character at face value, be informed and critical.

Q: How is the Campus Mental Health Strategy addressing these issues on campus?

A: Built into the strategy are specific recommendations that address stigma on campus. In working with SU Wellness Centre, WellBeing and Worklife and Staff Wellness, we are increasing offerings and capacity that improve mental health literacy and reduce the stigma of mental illness on campus that are available for everyone in the community.

Other recommendations support the use of contact-based education and peer support as ways to reduce stigma. Some examples include examining university policies, processes, and procedures so they are supportive of mental health, and developing curriculum and pedagogy that includes mental health and wellness content. I think the approach that the Campus Mental Health Strategy has taken by addressing stigma via multiple methods and at multiple levels is the most effective way a campus can reduce the stigma of mental illness.

Q: What are some things everyone can do to create a more welcoming and supportive environment?

A: One of the easiest ways is to be open and willing to talk about mental health positively in the workplace. Whether it is talking about how you feel with colleagues or engaging leadership about mental health resources, meaningful conversation is one of the best ways to create that welcoming and supportive environment.  

If a colleague is on medical leave (for whatever reason), be respectful of their privacy but also be inclusive. You can invite them to workplace gatherings or events. Similarly, if one is returning from leave, be welcoming and ask how they are doing.

You can become more informed by attending workshops, understanding resources available, and supporting mental health and well-being initiatives. Finally, if you suspect a colleague is experiencing poor mental health or has a mental illness, don’t diagnose or stigmatize but show genuine concern and refer to resources if you feel comfortable or in a position to do so. 

For more information about the Campus Mental Health Strategy, visit here. If you think you need help, please visit resources here. If you think someone you know needs help, find more information here.