What Is The Issue?

Stigma refers to negative, unfavourable attitudes and the behaviour they produce. It is a form of prejudice that spreads fear and misinformation, labels individuals and perpetuates stereotypes. Stigma against people with mental illnesses is oppressive and alienating; it prevents many from seeking help, denying them access to the support networks and treatment they need to recover.

Stigma is everywhere
Some seven million Canadians—20 per cent of the population—live with a mental illness. Every week, 500,000 Canadians miss work for psychiatric reasons. Despite being so common, mental illness continues to be met with widespread stigma: in hospitals, workplaces and schools; in rural and urban communities. It occurs around the world, unconfined by demographics or national boundaries.

The experience of stigma
People experience stigma as a barrier that can affect nearly every aspect of life—limiting opportunities for employment, housing and education; causing the loss of family and friends. It can also affect self-image when one starts to believe the negative views held by others: also known as self-stigma. Many myths and misconceptions contribute to stigma. A common one—sometimes perpetuated by the media—is that people with mental illnesses are typically violent. In truth, those living with mental illness are much more likely to be victimized by acts of crime, hate and discrimination than to perpetrate them.

How to reduce stigma
Reducing stigma requires a change in behaviour and attitudes—toward acceptance, respect and equitable treatment of people living with mental illnesses. The Carter Center Mental Health Program in the U.S. has identified reducing stigma and discrimination as key to improving not only individual quality of life but also the mental health system as a whole. Perhaps most important is for people to understand that mental illnesses are not anyone’s choice and that recovery is possible with appropriate treatment and supports. People can be helped even more if stigma can be overcome.


What Are We Doing?

The Mental Health Commission of Canada is actively engaged in efforts to reduce stigma.

Opening Minds
Launched in 2009, Opening Minds aims to bring about changes that will improve the day-to-day lives of people who experience stigma. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Opening Minds recognizes that there is already important anti-stigma work underway across Canada. Its goal is to identify best practices in use today, and to create resources and toolkits that share those practices nationally and internationally.

Opening Minds is currently evaluating the impact of 68 anti-stigma programs targeting health care providers, youth, the workforce and the media. Those audiences were chosen specifically because:

  • health care providers don't always have the time or training to adequately address mental health issues, especially when they see patients very quickly.
  • the majority of adults living with mental illnesses say they developed symptoms in their youth—before the age of 18.
  • one of every four or five people in the workforce is affected by a mental health problem every year—with many avoiding treatment in order to not be labeled “unreliable,” “unproductive” or “untrustworthy.”
  • the news media have a great influence on public opinion, and can either reinforce or help challenge stereotypes and misconceptions.

Mental Health First Aid
The MHFA Canada program aims to improve mental health literacy, and provide the skills and knowledge to help people better manage potential or developing mental health problems in themselves, a family member, a friend or a colleague.

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is the help provided to a person developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis. Just as physical first aid is administered to an injured person before medical treatment can be obtained, MHFA is given until appropriate treatment is found or until the crisis is resolved.

MHFA is an international program active in over 20 countries and, since 2007, more than 65,000 Canadians have been trained. International research has shown that this evidence-based course offers significant positive impacts for participants and their workplaces, communities and families, namely:

  • significantly greater recognition of the most common mental health problems
  • decreased social distance from people with mental health problems
  • increased confidence in providing help to others
  • improved mental health of the MHFA participant her/himself

Together Against Stigma
In June 2012, the MHCC and the World Psychiatric Association hosted the fifth international conference on stigma reduction: Together Against Stigma: Changing How We See Mental Illness. The largest stigma-related event on record, it drew 670 researchers, practitioners, policy makers, advocates, caregivers and people with lived experience to Ottawa, Canada to share research, programs, best practices and personal stories.

Seniors Anti-Stigma Project
The MHCC is currently leading an anti-stigma project focused on elderly Canadians and challenging the perception that mental illness is a "natural" consequence of aging.

Delivering accurate information
The MHCC is a valuable source of information for both the general public and specific mental health stakeholders, including health care providers and employers. Access the MHCC library or contact MHCC with any questions.

Combating Stigma for Physicians and other Health Professionals
This interactive online course is focused on educating family physicians, specialists, and health care workers to recognize the stigma often related to mental health problems and mental illness. An accredited Continuing Medical Education (CME) program, this course is designed to help medical professionals recognize attitudes and behaviours that could lead to stigma within their own work, and offer examples of practical clinical approaches to reduce stigma. Visit the website.


What We've Learned

Stigma can be reduced. Change is possible. What it requires is a collective effort for all Canadians to help make a difference—at home, at work, in schools and on the frontlines of health care.

Over the course of its work on the issue of stigma, the MHCC has come to a number of conclusions:

  • People with lived experience must be included in the process of designing services, developing and delivering solutions, and executing programs to combat stigma.
  • Contact-based education—interactions between those with lived experience and those who might hold stigmatizing attitudes—is an effective way of reducing stigma.
  • Youth are an essential audience to reach through anti-stigma programs, as mental health issues often first present in the teenage years.
  • Working with the media to raise awareness of mental health issues is another effective approach with potential to have a positive impact on public perceptions.
  • Programs must be tailored to specific audiences versus taking one-size-fits-all approaches that are less effective.
  • Prejudice and discrimination are prevalent within the health care system and must be recognized.
  • Providing work opportunities for people with mental illnesses is important; the workplace is a key environment for anti-stigma interventions.

Learn more about the 68 anti-stigma programs being evaluated through Opening Minds.

Learn more about the impact of stigma
Check back soon to browse the MHCC’s toolkits and resources to find practical ways you can help combat stigma.

Official MHCC reports produced for/by the MHCC

application/pdf icon
307.64 KB

The Downward Spiral of Systemic Exclusion Final Report James D. Livingston, PhD Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology and Criminology, Saint Mary’s ...

application/pdf icon
581.38 KB

The PSP Adult Mental Health Module was developed to enhance the capacity and comfort of family physicians to diagnose and engage patients in the management of their ...

application/pdf icon
922.87 KB

The Durham TAMI Coalition will provide the assembly model to schools that have participated in a summit and want to continue to increase awareness of mental illness ...

application/pdf icon
681.82 KB

This intervention was a one-hour online training course to help faculty better understand their role in identifying and supporting students with mental health issues.

application/pdf icon
580.55 KB

The Partnership Education Program celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2014. Since 1994, the program has offered contact-based education on schizophrenia and related ...

application/pdf icon
2.19 MB

Cognitive Behavioural Interpersonal Skills (CBIS) training is an award-winning educational component of the Practice Support Program (PSP) Adult Mental Health Module. ...

application/pdf icon
544.15 KB

The purpose of Beautiful Minds is to bring about positive change in people's knowledge of mental health and reduce stigma that surrounds mental health issues. It ...