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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

What we have learned so far

Senator Michael Kirby

Reprinted from "Stigma & Discrimination" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (6), p. 6

In February 2003, the Standing Senate Com- mittee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology (SSCSAST) launched the first comprehensive review of the state of mental health and addiction services in Canada. The committee is in the process of preparing its final report, which will contain a detailed set of recommendations for restructuring and enhancing the delivery of mental health and addiction services in this country.

The committee is deeply committed to this study, not only because reform is essential, but also because the majority of us have had firsthand experience of the impact of these conditions. In fact, it was only once we had begun our review of the mental health and addiction services in Canada that we realized we had never talked with each other about the impact mental illness has had on our own families. This was in stark contrast to how open we had previously been with each other about physical health problems.

The issue of stigma and discrimination has already featured prominently in the three background reports on mental health, mental illness and addiction in Canada that the SSCSAST released last November. In those reports, we examined in some detail the phenomena of stigma and discrimination and what can be done to curtail them.

We also realized, however, that we needed to reach out even more widely. Therefore, following the release of the background reports, we conducted the first of two phases of Web based or ‘e’ consultation with Canadians. More than 500 people replied to a questionnaire posted on the committee’s website, almost all of whom had experienced, or knew of someone who had experienced, some form of stigma or discrimination because of mental illness or addiction.

Respondents (officially referred to as witnesses) told us of discrimination in relation to employment, education and the justice system, as well as from health professionals. They spoke of the difficulties they encountered in finding safe, affordable housing, and in obtaining disability, life or medical insurance. We were profoundly moved by their candour and their insight.

The second phase of e-consultation, which took place between April and June, has allowed us to gauge even further the experiences that consumers, families, service providers and concerned Canadians have had with mental ill- ness and addiction services in Canada. During this phase, participants were able to provide specific advice to the committee on how to help strengthen mental health and addictions services in Canada.

Morever, the SSCSAST has undertaken public hearings that will take it to every province and territory. As well, a number of special topic meetings, such as the Children’s Mental Health Roundtable that was held in May, have allowed the committee to meet with advocates, consumers, psychologists, psychiatrists and educators to discuss in detail the issues relating to specific areas.

We have learned an enormous amount from the input we have received thus far. We now know that it is possible for millions of Canadians who are living with a mental disorder or addiction to live meaningful and productive lives. But we also know that for this to become a reality, action is required to deal with stigma and discrimination.

The stubborn persistence of stigma and discrimination is very disconcerting. These phenomena are clearly deeply rooted and have a profound effect on people’s lives. One witness, Pat Capponi, an author, advocate and consumer, put it this way:

“A chronic mental patient is just that in the eyes of many. We are not entitled to be full human beings behind that label, not expected to have basic personalities that mirror those in the greater population, good and bad and everything in between. A schizophrenic is a schizophrenic, and every action is attributed to that disease and not to the underlying nature of the individual.”

People across Canada have also highlighted the negative way in which mental illness and addiction are often portrayed in the media, and have insisted that the media could play an important role in changing attitudes about mental illness and addiction in our society.

Many witnesses have recommended that we need a national campaign to help reduce the widespread occurrence of stig- ma and discrimination. They have pointed to the critical importance of educating people about mental illness and addiction in order to reduce stigma and discrimination and enable people to gain timely access to needed services and supports.

In concluding, let me insist on one thing that has become clear to us: in order for any of the recommendations we make in our final report to be implemented, it will be necessary for Canadians from coast to coast to coast to hold governments’ feet to the fire. We believe that together we can make a difference.

About the Author

Senator Kirby is Chairman of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. The committee has been engaged in studying various aspects of Canada’s health care system since 1999

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