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In 2011, Bell Canada began their annual Let’s Talk activism campaign, focusing on raising awareness and combating stigma surrounding mental illness in Canada. It has since grown to become the largest corporate commitment to mental health in the nation. As part of the campaign’s effort in 2015, entertainer Howie Mandel told this story about a direct experience of stigma relating to his mental health:
In the video, Mandel describes how humiliated he felt after the hosts on a radio show were making a big deal about his OCD, treating the condition as an object of fun. In a dismayed, panicked state, Mandel left the radio studio and tried to gather himself. A stranger on the street came up to him, saying they had just heard Mandel on the show. Mandel prepared himself for further ridicule, but instead, the person simply said: “Me too.”
It was a moment of vulnerability for that stranger to open themselves up to Mandel, and it stuck with him. That display of strength in not being afraid to share vulnerability is what the Bell Let’s Talk campaign is all about. Stigma is a negative stereotype, a demeaning story reinforced by what others say to us, and in turn, what we say to ourselves. But by showing that strength that the stranger showed Mandel on that day, stigma is defeated — the negative stereotypes, those demeaning stories, are shown to be false.
The fact is, 20% of Canadians now admit to experiencing a mental health problem every year, with half of all Canadians having experienced a mental health concern by age 40. The fact that the stigma around mental illness has been so entrenched for so long means that even these staggeringly high numbers are almost certainly under-reported.
As Mandel’s testimonial says succinctly, a professional can announce they’re going to a dentist appointment and no one would bat an eye. But if that same person told their colleagues that they were going to a psychiatrist appointment, that can make many people uneasy. That’s stigma in action. Very few people have any issues admitting their physical health concerns, but still feel shame and negativity about reckoning with mental health concerns, even if no one else is making them feel ashamed. The stigma runs deep in society; the stories we tell each other and ourselves make a big difference.
That’s why simply talking openly about mental health is one of the best ways to fight stigma. Mental health should be as mundane and uninteresting as dental health, just a normal thing that we all have to tend to in order to stay healthy.