MHCC anti-stigma program goes global

In 2012, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) was ahead of its time.

Seizing an opportunity to start busting the stigma surrounding mental illness, the MHCC’s Opening Minds team hosted the world’s largest anti-stigma summit in Ottawa. From there, the Global Anti-Stigma Alliance (GASA) was born.

“We were breaking new ground,” said Mike Pietrus, the MHCC’s director of Opening Minds. “We had more than 700 delegates from 29 countries, and this work was new to all of us.”

Comprising the world’s leading mental health non-profits, such as the U.K.’s Time to Change, Denmark’s One of Us, New Zealand’s Like Minds Like Mine, and Australia’s Beyond Blue, GASA meets annually to share successes and best practices.

In just seven years, the Opening Minds team has tackled stigma head on by developing home-grown programs and initiatives backed by the best researchers in the business.

“Truth be told, it’s not always comfortable,” said Pietrus, who has focused the program on specific groups. “We’re talking to health care providers, young people, the media, and workplaces because in targeting these groups our reach is almost limitless.”

In fact, the appetite for Opening Minds programs seemingly knows no bounds. “This work is going global quickly,” he added. “While we’re sharing a lot of our evidence-based research, we’re getting a lot back in terms of the validation of our efforts. If people are coming to us — when they could be seeking expertise from anywhere — it speaks volumes about our global credibility.”

When asked for a round-up of this international work, Pietrus admitted that he never dreamed the consortium he co-founded in 2012 would be leading a global sea change. 

This fall, three Canadian master trainers travelled to Australia to teach instructors how to deliver The Working Mind program. Recipients of the training included Melbourne’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade and the County Fire Authority in the state of Victoria. Lifeline, a national crisis support service, will also be rolling out the program across Australia in the new year.

In Suriname this past November, Understanding Stigma training — developed by the MHCC and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health to help providers confront their own biases when treating people living with mental illness — was very well received. Among those in attendance were the country’s health minister along with 35 family physicians and health care workers.

Five other South American countries are applying the MHCC-funded Opening Minds Scale for Health Care Providers in community health-care clinics. The anti-stigma scale, a validated tool to measure attitudes among health care providers toward people living with mental illness, has been translated into seven languages and accessed over 15,000 times by researchers and organizations around the world.

“We also had extraordinary results from our first international HEADSTRONG youth anti-stigma summit, held in Ireland this October,” said Pietrus, who acknowledges that the global interest in Opening Minds is very exciting.

Louise Bradley, MHCC President and CEO, said the international endorsement doesn’t surprise her. “This work is so important, but there was a void,” she said, "and we’re not yet finished. While we’ve thawed the tip of the stigma iceberg, there’s a lot more below the surface. We need to get people talking and listening to one another before we can get down to the brass tacks of funding, legislation, and other aspects of structural stigma that hurt people’s chances of recovery.”

Pietrus acknowledged that structural stigma is on the horizon for the MHCC but noted that winning this battle is a long game. “The beauty of Opening Minds is that it’s methodical, research based, carefully evaluated, and easily replicated. That’s why we’re seeing so much uptake around the world. The legwork has already been done.”

As for next steps, Pietrus pointed to many upcoming opportunities, including interest in HEADSTRONG from the Carter Centre in Atlanta. “We’ve been extremely fortunate to work with some very talented Canadian researchers and tremendous partners across the country,” he said.

When asked about her thoughts on the way Opening Minds is flourishing around the world, Bradley beams. “What can we say? Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”