Stigma of Mental Illness: Shocking Survey from Canada — US Likely the Same!

– Posted in: Stigma

The stigma of mental illness continues to a shocking degree throughout the world.

A new study has detailed the stigma of mental illness in Canada. Its results are unsettling, to say the least. Here are some of the findings:

  • 46% believe that a diagnosis of mental illness is merely an “excuse for poor behavior and personal failings”
  • 10% think that people with mental illness could “just snap out of it if they wanted”
  • 42% would no longer socialize with a friend diagnosed with mental illness
  • 55% would not marry someone who suffered from mental illness
  • 25% are afraid of being around someone who suffers from serious mental illness
  • 50% would not tell friends or coworkers that a family member was suffering from mental illness. 72% would discuss cancer, and 68% diabetes.
  • 50% think alcoholism and drug addiction are not mental illnesses
  • 11% think depression is not a mental illness
  • 50% think that depression is not a serious condition

There is no reason to believe that attitudes toward the mentally ill are any better in the US. Experience shows us that they may be even be worse. To my knowledge there have been no comparable studies of mental health stigma in the US, amazingly enough.

The Canadian Medical Association study

Final frontier of socially acceptable discrimination

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) released the results of its survey of Canadians’ attitudes toward mental health on August 18, 2008. It contains, besides the survey of attitudes toward the mentally ill, information on how Canadian citizens view their mental health care system, as well as how doctors regard the system. 

Overall, the results are grim. Brian Day, president of CMA, said the survey “shines a harsh, and frankly unflattering, light on the attitudes we Canadians have concerning mental health.” He further said that,

[the stigma of mental illness is the] final frontier of socially acceptable discrimination.”

Jean-Bernard Trudeau, of the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal, said the attitudes found in the survey are “deplorable but not that surprising.” He added,

People are afraid of what they don’t know. It just shows that we have to make a lot more effort to educate the public about mental illness.

The number of Canadians with mental health issues

US and Canadian numbers comparable

About the same percentages of the mentally ill apply to Canada as to the US.  One in four Canadians will suffer from a diagnosable mental illness at some point in their lives. Mental illness costs the Canadian economy $51 billion a year, according to research from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

The study found that 15% have been diagnosed by a doctor as being clinically depressed. And among those reporting other issues associated with mental illness, 36% report stress, and 23% report feelings of helplessness or hopelessness.

Surprisingly, 20% did not seek help for mental illness issues, despite Canada’s liberal system of government-funded health care. About 66% of US citizens do not seek mental health help.

More results of the Canadian study

Stigma restricts the economy

The stigma of mental illness in Canada restricts the economy in many ways. Besides the economic effect of stigmatization on the mentally ill, a large majority of the population would not do business with people with a mental illness:

  • 58% would be unlikely to hire a lawyer with a mental illness
  • 58% would not use a child care worker with a mental illness
  • 58% would not hire a mentally ill financial advisor
  • 61% would not use a family doctor with a mental illness

What do you think?

US attitudes no better

Before US citizens get all cocky, let me emphasize that I don’t think attitudes toward mental health are any better here than in Canada. In fact, they may be worse. The governments in Canada and the UK are behind efforts to correct the stigma of mental illness. In the US, it’s been an uphill struggle just to get close to parity for reimbursements for mental health services and medical services. The battle against the stigma of mental illness is left to private organizations, most of which are poorly funded.

  • If you are a Canadian citizen, do you think that the survey accurately states the attitudes of the people around you?
  • If you are a US citizen, do you think that the Canadian survey might be applicable to the US?
  • How would you combat the stigma of mental illness?

As always, your comments are welcome!

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Resources used in this post:

Canadian Medical Association. (2008, August). Eighth Annual National Report Card on Health Care. Retrieved August 27, 2008 from Canadian Medical Association Web site (PDF): http://www.cma.ca/multimedia/cma/Content_images/Inside_cma/Annual_Meeting/2008/GC_Bulletin/National_Report_Card_EN.pdf

Picard, André. (2008, August 18). Stigma of mental illness pervasive: CMA head. Retrieved August 22, 2008 from Globe and Mail Web site ($$): http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080818.wmental18/BNStory/mentalhealth/home

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25 Comments… add one
Kay Dennison August 27, 2008, 9:06 pm

I doubt the U.S. results would be different. There is a “head in the sand” mentality here, too. It’s sad.

Mike August 27, 2008, 10:12 pm

If anything, the attitude is worse.

That ole American personal independence tells us that we ought to be able to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps, that we ought to be able just to snap out of it if we give it a red-blooded try.

So, many suffer in silence, shamed that they can’t do it alone, shamed to admit that they need help. Hence the 66% of Americans who need mental health care but will not go to the doctor versus the 20% of Canadians.

Ana August 28, 2008, 2:00 pm

This is very sad to read!

Mike August 28, 2008, 9:44 pm

Ana, thanks for your comment!

Yes, it is very sad. But thanks to the work of groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health America there has been a great deal of progress.

Please take a look at these sites and see if there is some way you can be of help to them. Mental Health America fights for mental health rights on the political front, and often has petitions and emails you can send your legislators. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a grassroots organization that may have a chapter near you. They work for mental health education and parity in your local area.

And there’s so much that each one of us can do. See a slur on the mentally ill on tv? Write a letter or send an email! Hear a friend making a joke about the mentally ill? Gently educate them. There’s always something that each of us can do.

Dorothy November 8, 2008, 8:25 pm

Just noticed you mention that only 20% of Canadians who need mental health care don’t go to the doctor. I’ve been doing a bunch of reading on this subject, in preparation for a meeting next week with city hall. If you check the website out, it states:
“Almost one half (49%) of those who feel they have suffered from depression or anxiety have never gone to see a doctor about this problem. ”
So unfortunately, there are many Canadians who aren’t getting the help they need. There is still so much stigmatism associated with mental illness. I’m an advocate for mental illness, and am trying to educate people. Thank you for your article!

Mike November 9, 2008, 12:19 pm

Thanks for the comment, Dorothy!

I thought the 20% figure for those avoiding treatment was a little low, but that’s what my sources said, so that’s what I wrote. You mentioned a website. Could you provide the URL? I’ll update the post with better statistics if I can.

I’m interested in your meeting with city hall, what it is about and how it goes. If you can, I’d love an update!

Dorothy November 10, 2008, 11:58 am

Hi Mike,
Sorry, I thought where it says under Name & E-mail – “Website” is where I put that direct link. My mistake. Here’s the direct link:
http://www.cmha.ca/bins/content_page.asp?cid=6-20-23-43
I’ll give you an update on the city hall meeting on Friday or Saturday, after the meeting has taken place.

Mike November 10, 2008, 2:32 pm

Thank you for the URL, Dorothy. I will study the information provided and revise the article as needed.

I’m looking forward to the update!

This is a little off-topic, but I commend the Canadians for attacking the stigma of mental illness head-on. While there are several private US associations battling that stigma, there has been no study of it comparable to the one mentioned in this article, either public or private.

Alicia November 13, 2008, 4:04 am

I have suffered from a mental illness for maybe about five years now. I red this one comment under mental illness and their rights about being forced to take their medication. Someone sugested to take them downtown and let them see how the mental illness live their. And that make them take their meds. I’d like to make a statement everyone living on the streets, not all of them have a mental illness. I thought that stament was really igorant. The doctors say i have bipolar but I’m not moody, the reason why my depresion occurred was in fact that my cousin past away and I couldn’t deal with it. Now i’m forced to take medication, I was forced to sighn an afterdadity, by doctor duvlen in the surrey hospital to take my medication and go do blood work to monitor one of the meds. I’m forced to go see a doctor, all I really needed was someone to cry with. People deal with greefe differently, I don’t think I’m mentaly ill at all. My friends never let me express myself, when I did they wrote me off. Now this is another way i’m not alloude to express myself, or i’m forced to do something against my will. And they say Canada aint communits? People are people we’re not robots. Who says whats the norm???? Martin Luther king, changed things for the blacks, I tell yeah change is gonna come for the metally ill, even if I have to go to Vancouver myself. People, don’t have hearts these days. Their all money hungary, and money isn’t everything. Since I came from a money hungary area, see not all the ill is poor.

Mike November 13, 2008, 12:54 pm

Thank you for your comment, Alicia. I’m sorry you’re having to take medication against your will. Is there a way to get a second opinion whether you need to take it or not?

And you also should think about counseling or therapy — you need someone to talk to and a person to help you learn to control the symptoms that caused the doctors to say you are bipolar. Many times, therapy can help you to get along without drugs at all.

It’s really heartbreaking when “friends” will not stand by you and listen to you. I’ve had that happen and I know how much it hurts.

I wish you the best, and that you can work out something with your medication. If you need to, you can email me directly by pressing the “contact” tab and filling in the form.

Marie-Anne Labelle-Unrau May 8, 2010, 10:05 pm

Having grown up with bipolar disorder has been a challenge within itself, I find that society and even my own family has made this challenge that much more unbearable. I will however never forget the manner in which i was treated when I gave birth to my daughter, I was demeaned in such a way, I dont think i will ever forget and by nurses of all people. Its funny how people think they can walk all over you due to a given label, I am glad to say that over the years I have gained strength , appreciation and respect for myself because of the courageous battles I have fought and won against this terrible affliction of which i would not wish upon my worst enemy. I remind myself that when people make rude or snide remarks they are just ignorant and i actually feel sorry for them.

Alexandra September 25, 2010, 11:08 am

I am a Canadian citizen who suffers from several mental disorders. And I can tell you from first hand experience, there is a LOT of stigma involved on even just a basic level. Me and my husband are on disability because of our problems, but we are not “bad people”. We both have social anxiety issues, depression, and social developmental issues. But I have seen personally how people to react when they become aware of our mental disorders. Even just that we are on disability makes people avoid us or treat us differently.

Some of the more horrible things that have happened include having our kids taken away by a prejudiced child services worker, being denied volenteer jobs, having other parents keep their kids away from ours, not being taken seriously when we have went to authorities when our lives were threatened… The list goes on. I would say the figures you gave at the beginning of this article are much lower than what they actually are.

I have lived all across Canada, and the same attitude towards those with mental illness’ are pretty universial. Sure, you have people who understand and see the person instead of the illness, however many more are more likely to avoid us altogether.

And a lot of the time, it is hard to keep private our mental status, especially when we are at playgroups or social gatherings and the inevitable question comes up of “What do you do for a living?” Also, schools and daycares need to know as well, so it is very easy to come across a teacher or principle who is predjudiced, and the child ends up suffering.

And then you come to children who suffer from mental disorders as well. ADD, ADHD, OCD… Most times teachers do not know how to deal with children like this, and again the child ends up suffering.

It’s horrible. And it’s not getting any better, either. If you were to disclose a mental disorder to a new employer or a prospective one, you are likely to loose you job or not even be hired. Of course, they would come up with another excuse just to avoid being sued, but it still does happen.

Children in school are made outcasts, bullied and harassed if it became known that they were “different”. Teachers treat the child differently and sometimes become more impatient with the child because they have to work harder with them for example.

Millions and millions of people suffer everyday because of their mental illness. Families are torn apart, jobs are lost, loans denied, landlords refuse renting, children are taken away from their parents… You name it.

And I think saddest thing of all, is that this type of behaviour is pretty much accepted on the social level. And there are many other reasons that employers or other professionals can use to explain away their predjudice so they are not sued. “They didn’t have enough experience,” “We’re looking for a different type of employee,” “They didn’t seem credible,” “There were others more suitable”….

Employers will sometimes hire someone with less experience or job knowledge if the alternative means hiring someone with a mental illness. Child care workers only see the term “illness” and come up with tons of made of reasons why the parent(s) are not suitable. Judges will award custody to the parent without a mental disorder, not really taking into account the *type* of person/parent the person is beyond their disorder.

People like to believe that the stigma of mental disorders is long behind us. However, the truth is that it is still here, and stronger than ever.

Bobsy January 12, 2011, 12:34 am

It’s not the stigma attached to the label that needs to be removed, it’s the labels themselves. I don’t know anyone with a “disorder” that feels good about it, the word “disorder” itself makes the presumption that there is something fundamentally flawed about the person. I myself have been given about 9-10 different diagnoses, and told to shut up about the fact I was sexually abused in an incestuous household. If you think the “science” behind the DSM manuals is good, how come so many subject to it have been given many different labels during their time in psychiatric care. If it was a real science then testing equipment would be able to make a definitive diagnosis, as with physical health. And anyone who has studied psychology knows that human observation is fallible. For perpetuating this misery, we have the people who have designed the DSM manuals to blame. It is utterly ridiculous and dehumanising to have a “scientific” manual with 400 “disorders” in it, most of which are cultural constructs perpetuated by upper class white American males yet applied in an arrogant chauvinistic manner to the rest of humanity. I wonder what pygmies think? Why do more women and racial minorities end up being diagnosed with mental illnesses? Can’t be biology, there must be a social and political context. So rather than telling Joe Bloggs to become comfortable with the diagnosis of “psychotic” or “Schizophrenic” or whatever, teach them to not accept the label at all, even if they have experienced great suffering, because it’s unscientific, stigmatizing, and, frankly, meaningless. If you want to know why someone is experiencing emotional suffering, why not ask them, instead of playing God with their lives. The whole of biological psychiatry has, historically, been a self-interested, fraudulent juggernaut of hubris that wants many folk to be on pills or whatever “therapy” is fashionable at the time to maximize the profits of corporations and the sickness business, whilst ignoring the frequently traumatic lives-sexual abuse, bullying, exclusion, war trauma etc, that is simply swept under the carpet before these people received the label. I think on the whole much of what we consider mental “illness” is in fact, a normal response to abnormal or significant levels of trauma, pain or suffering, and that a good number of people who have borne witness to horrific suffering would experience the same outcome.

Michelle May 15, 2011, 8:22 pm

Very well written article. You might want to also point out the fact that the Canadian government, while they accept mental illnesses as acceptable disabilities in their assistance programs (like ODSP) they will more often reject people seeking assistance than not. I suspect they have the same negative attitude towards mental illness as portrayed in this article.

Jason May 16, 2012, 9:41 am

I would like to thank Mike for this article and his compassionate responses to the people who commented on it. Your behaviour, Mike, is the type that should be perpetuated instead of telling people to suck it up, or simply ignoring them. I am a former member of the Canadian Forces and, having been diagnosed with PTSD along with a number of other injuries incurred during my service, I have personally experienced the negative results of this diagnosis. I had to fight for over a year to get DVA to approve my medical pension despite being medically released from the CF. I have had to fight for every single benefit that I currently get. I have been looked down upon and judged by my peers, by superior ranks in the CF and by people that I used to call friends simply because of the label of PTSD being applied to me. Everything was fine when I was being released due to the physical injuries but the moment people discovered that I was also diagnosed with PTSD – that was it, I was a leper and had to be shunned at all costs. I am medicated, see a mental health professional regularly and now cope with my issues quite well but I still lost friendships and a lot of the respect that I acquired during my 15 years in the CF. The stigma attached to PTSD and mental illnesses in general must be changed. The stigma alone can lead to more severe mental health issues and ultimately suicide.

Jason May 16, 2012, 9:47 am

I would like to thank Mike for this article and his compassionate responses to the people who commented on it. Your behaviour, Mike, is the type that should be perpetuated instead of telling people to suck it up, or simply ignoring them. I am a former member of the Canadian Forces and, having been diagnosed with PTSD along with a number of other injuries incurred during my service, I have personally experienced the negative results of this diagnosis. I had to fight for over a year to get DVA to approve my medical pension despite being medically released from the CF. I have had to fight for every single benefit that I currently get. I have been looked down upon and judged by my peers, by superior ranks in the CF and by people that I used to call friends simply because of the label of PTSD being applied to me. Everything was fine when I was being released due to the physical injuries but the moment people discovered that I was also diagnosed with PTSD – that was it, I was a leper and had to be shunned at all costs. I am medicated, see a mental health professional regularly and now cope with my issues quite well but I still lost friendships and a lot of the respect that I acquired during my 15 years in the CF. The stigma attached to PTSD and mental illnesses in general must be changed. The stigma alone can lead to more severe mental health issues and ultimately suicide…

Mike Nichols May 21, 2012, 11:50 am

@Jason, thank you for your comment and compliments. It’s the sort of thing that keeps me going.

The town I live in is right next to one of the largest Army bases in the US, so I’m even more acutely aware of the negative effects of any mental health issue on a soldier’s life, both in and out of the service.

I am preparing an updated article now about the stigma of mental illness, which I hope to post in the next couple of weeks. Also, I’m doing research specifically on the issue of PTSD and people in the military in preparation for writing an article to appear as soon as it’s ready.

The issue is so big that it seems impossible, but if we all keep chipping away at it in our small ways, I’m hoping that it will eventually crumble at some time in the future. That won’t help your current and past pain, but it is a ray of hope in a bleak landscape.

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