“Aren’t you afraid of working with those people?” – A question asked on numerous occasions after presenting on mental health or when describing my vocation to people. The question is disheartening, inevitably followed by looks of disbelief and astonishment when I retort, “I am one of those people.” Some witnesses to this acknowledgement lean in closer, lower their voices to a whisper and begin asking sincere questions that I am happy to answer, but regrettably the majority excuse themselves and make a beeline to the nearest exit.
For the last seven years, I have had the privilege of working with Spark of Brilliance, a program under the umbrella of Self Help Alliance services, operated by the Canadian Mental Health Association – Waterloo Wellington Dufferin Branch. Spark of Brilliance is a community based mental health initiative that promotes healing, recovery and discovery through the arts. Throughout these years, I have had the opportunity to meet, teach and learn from, as well as interact and become friends with, many people living with mental health issues. Very much like myself, they have struggled with unnecessary shame, prejudice and discrimination simply because they have an illness.
Mass media and popular movies, the public’s most significant sources of information about mental illness, often associate mental health issues with criminal behaviour. If continually bombarded with a skewed reality that perpetuates damaging stereotypes, people begin to believe what they see and hear.
Rare are the stories of people with mental illness as victims of crime. When it comes to mental illness, front page coverage with headlines of terrible offences describes aggressors who must have mental illnesses. How could sane people commit such dreadful acts? Yet, “Research has shown that the vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses.” (American Psychiatric Association, 1994)
These stereotypes affect those living with mental health issues as well. They read and view the very same images and are embarrassed by them. “They’re aware that they are depicted in negative ways and it damages their self-esteem; it damages their confidence and it increases the likelihood that they won’t tell anyone about their illnesses. So they’re not going to seek treatment,” says Otto F. Wahl, author of Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness.
The supposition that people with mental health issues are dangerous, full of aggression, and just waiting to “snap” is a perception that is dangerous. The truth is, people with mental health issues are more frequently the innocent victims of crime, rather than the perpetrators. “Most people who suffer from a mental disorder are not violent; there is no need to fear them. Embrace them for who they are, normal human beings experiencing a difficult time, who need your open mind, caring attitude, and helpful support.” (Grohol, 1998)
One in five Canadians will experience a mental health issue, yet only 10% of people who experience depression will ever seek treatment, and 2 in 3 people suffer in silence fearing judgement and rejection. Rather than presenting inaccurate depictions of people living with mental health issues that fuel stigma and discrimination and may prevent people from seeking help, it is essential that positive communications about mental health and recovery continue to increase. The importance of starting conversations about mental health issues is essential.
David Granirer, founder of Stand Up For Mental Health, an international program that teaches stand-up comedy to people with mental health issues, uses his own act to educate while making people laugh. “When it comes to crime, people are scared of mental health consumers, but the truth is we only commit 5% of all crime. That means that normal people commit the other 95%! Have you ever looked at a normal person? They’re polite, well-dressed, gainfully employed; they could snap at any moment!”
Granirer says, “Most so-called normal people would never want to go anywhere near stand-up comedy. Seeing people with mental illness do it forces the audience to re-evaluate their perceptions of and prejudices against people who have mental health issues.” In David’s Stand Up For Mental Health course, people with mental health issues turn their problems into stand-up comedy, performing their acts at conferences, corporations, universities and, most important, for the broader public. In 2012, Stand Up for Mental Health (Guelph Program) performed for Bell Canada which, via its Bell “Let’s Talk” initiative and incredible efforts, is making positive strides in reducing stigma, prejudice and discrimination against people with mental health issues.
Bell “Let’s Talk” is a “multi-year charitable program dedicated to mental health.” The company committed an extraordinary $50 million (now surpassing $62 million and still growing) to support a wide range of mental health organizations across Canada. The four pillars of its funding include anti-stigma, care and access, workplace health, and research.
On January 28, 2014, Bell Canada will donate 5 cents to a mental health initiative for every text message sent, mobile and long distance call, Tweet using #BellLetsTalk, and Facebook share of the Bell Let’s Talk image.
People with mental health issues aren’t the dramatized crazed, violent persons lurking in dark alleys waiting to attack you; they aren’t hiding in your closet waiting to harm your family – we are your family, friends, helpful neighbours, doctors, bankers and teachers, all deserving acceptance and respect. We are hard workers; we contribute to society and make the world a better place, just as well and as often as those considered “sane.”
We do not let our diagnoses dictate our worth and potential – we should not need to combat the media in our drive to succeed and lead happy lives, free of embarrassment, shame and fear.
The fact that Bell Canada embraced its extension – committing to fuelling more dollars – and publicly declared its continued participation in making this year’s campaign bigger, brighter and bolder, supports the need to change people’s perceptions, and it all starts with simply “talking.” Their website states, “Talking is the first step towards meaningful change and to build greater awareness, acceptance, and action.” So let us all take heed, by drowning out the sensationalized, inaccurate portrayals of people with mental health issues that the media generates by raising our own voices! Through meaningful, accurate and informative conversation about mental health, we can educate others and change lives.
What are you waiting for? Let’s Talk!
by Marcey Gray