The Voldemort of the Mental Health World
/ Author: Quentin Steen
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The Voldemort of the Mental Health World

To face down the forces of STIGMA, we need to summon courage in Harry Potter fashion. Here’s what that looks like

By Quentin Steen, Representative

Last month’s Mental Health Moment focussed on the destructive nature of stigma and its impact on the state of our mental health.

The Public Health Agency of Canada defines mental health as “the capacity of each and all of us to feel, think, and act in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face. It is a positive sense of emotional and spiritual well-being that respects the importance of culture, equity, social justice, interconnections, and personal dignity.”

Stigma not only dismisses people’s mental health. In its worst form, it also dismisses the individual.

Stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” As Voldemort was to the world of Harry Potter, so too is stigma to our mental health world. And like Voldemort, stigma’s destructive power exists because we allow it to.

So, what does it look like to summon the courage, and in Harry Potter fashion, face down the forces of STIGMA?

Socialization – Stigma is not something we are born with; we learn it. It’s a socially conditioned behaviour. Our stigma is often rooted in a lack of knowledge about what we’re looking at (often from a distance) or hearing about (usually third person). We spend little to no time properly educating ourselves about that which we are making assumptions or judgments about. And we tend to fear what we do not know. And that which we are afraid of and do not know we often name or characterize in ways that make us feel more comfortable and—dare I say it—justified in our ignorance.

Talk – The best way to counter stigma is to be open about it. Bell Canada was one of the first large corporations to use this strategy to counteract stigma with its Let’s Talk campaign. When I’m faced with a stigma-infused scenario, I always find it best to ask questions (What makes you think your colleague is just faking it?) instead of issuing statements, which for the most part are judgmental in nature (You’re so ridiculous for believing that!).

Invest – Invest in the time it takes to have real, meaningful conversions about mental health. The conversations are even richer when we have them with others who have found the strength and courage to be open and honest about their journey toward mental health—the good, the bad, and the ugly. In case you’re wondering, there are a lot of us out there.

Go – Go to the source. The best way to educate yourself is to learn about mental health from reputable sources. Referring to medical science is a better starting point than listening to a loud relative who believes people’s mental health problems aren’t real but a character flaw.

Me – It starts with me. It’s me that needs to recognize the stigma I spread, sometimes consciously or unconsciously. I’m the one who needs to initiate the conversations instead of waiting in the wings for someone to speak up. It’s mine to own the investment it takes to educate me instead of remaining ignorant. It’s me who needs to affirm those who are in the battle.

Affirm – Very early on in my mental health journey, I was plagued by thoughts of guilt and shame. Guilt because I thought it was my fault for being in the darker spots I found myself in, like something I should have done better. Shame because I thought there was something wrong with me. If only I was a stronger person, then I would be able to control this. I can’t stress enough how important it is for individuals struggling with mental health-related issues to have people in their corner affirming them instead of giving glib advice like, “Just get over it already.” It would have been helpful from the beginning to have someone come alongside and provide me with the reassurance I so desperately needed by acknowledging that my mental health-related issues were not the result of a character flaw but due to a common medical condition. Some of us because of our biology are more prone to struggle with our mental health than others. But with appropriate professional help, we can learn to manage our symptoms instead of being controlled by them.

Quentin Steen is a certified mental health first aid instructor for the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Get your BRAIN right and your MIND will follow!

4 Mental Health Resources to Help You During the Pandemic

  1. If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health issue, CLAC has a number of resources and interactive tools available to help you at My Health and Wellness.
  2. Stronger Minds features videos and quick reads from mental health experts, activities to help you gain resilience, and ask-an-expert videos in response to questions.
  3. WellCan offers free well-being resources to help Canadians develop coping strategies and build resilience to help deal with uncertainty, mental health, and substance abuse concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  4. Wellness Together Canada: Mental Health and Substance Use Support provides free online resources, tools, apps, and connections to trained volunteers and qualified mental health professionals.
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