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Canadian Anti-Stigma Campaigns

A review

Naomi Liu

Reprinted from "Stigma & Discrimination" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (6), p. 32-33

The realities of discrimination and social exclusion have prompted the use of public relations campaigns in an attempt to influence people’s attitudes and behaviours toward those with a mental illness. Most of these campaigns have used mass media as a singular or secondary avenue of persuasion. I’ve chosen to highlight a few examples of Canadian campaigns.

Transforming Lives campaign (2005)

A quick look at history—and movies like A Beautiful Mind or Shine—shows us that brilliance often walks hand in hand with mental health problems. Sigmund Freud for example, is thought to have lived with some of the very mental ailments that he diagnosed his patients with.

Celebrities are able to play an important part in influencing the public’s opinion on topics relating to mental health. In the last millennia, public figures like Marilyn Monroe, Abraham Lincoln and Alanis Morissette fought to keep their personal battles out of the critical eye of the media for fear they would be wrongly judged and faced with sinking careers. Many others, however, such as Rafe Mair, Elizabeth Manley, Svend Robinson, Lorraine Bracco, Mike Wallace, Brooke Shields and Alex Rodriguez, courageously share their stories of mental illness.

In April of 2005, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), based in Toronto, launched the Transforming Lives awareness campaign. This two-year campaign features notable public figures such as hockey star Ron Ellis, television host Dan Carter and former federal finance minister Michael Wilson discussing their personal journeys with mental illness through print, radio and TV public service announcements (PSAs). The CAMH campaign follows in the successful footsteps of the landmark New Zealand campaign, Like Minds, Like Mine, which has used a similar long-run, celebrity-spokesperson approach. (For more about the Like Minds campaign, see the article by Mykle Ludvigsen on Marketing to Men, an exclusive online Visions article available at

“Imagine...” campaign (2004)

In 2004, the Canadian Psychiatric Research Foundation (CPRF) also launched an advertising campaign using print, radio and television spots in hopes of addressing the public’s misconception of mental illness. The ads asked people to juxtapose how they treat people with physical conditions or disabilities with their treatment of people with psychiatric disabilities.

“Imagine if we treated everyone like we treat the mentally ill,” was the tagline accompanying each message. A man hit by a car while crossing the street lies motionless on the pave- ment. “He’s not bleeding, he probably just doesn’t want to go to work,” a woman proclaims, mimicking the comments many employees overhear from coworkers when returning to work after a mental health crisis.

These public service announcements won numerous awards and received worldwide recognition, including a United Nations Department of Public Information award for producing a message that best reflected the values and concerns of the United Nations. The campaign archives, including multimedia files, can be found online at

BC Association of Broadcasters’ Humanity Award campaigns (2003–2004 and 1998–1999

Every year the BC Association of Broadcasters awards more than $3 million in donated air time to a social marketing cause. In the past several years, two mental illness–themed campaigns—each with provocative and hard-hitting messages—were honoured with the Humanity Award.

One of the award-winning campaigns was presented by the Canadian Mental Health Association’s BC Division in 1998–1999. It featured three bus shelter posters showing a person’s face and life activities, with a diagnosis overprinted on the face and the caption, “Don’t let your attitude be their disability.” The campaign also featured a series of radio ads with the tagline, “To some I’m a problem. To others, I’m a person. How do you treat mental illness?” There were two TV spots—the most famous one, known as the father and-baby ad, depicted a man cuddling his infant child, followed by the message “This man has a mental illness….But what’s really sick…is how your attitude of him just changed.”

The more recent campaign has targeted stigma in a similarly provocative way in terms of schizophrenia. The BC Schizophrenia Society’s We’d Like to Change Your Mind campaign featured a well-aired TV spot of a young man disclosing his schizophrenia diagnosis to friends in a diner. Written captions beneath the dialogue describe the highly negative fears and thoughts of the friends, in radical contrast to their outward ‘supportive’ response to their friend’s disclosure. The campaign paints a face of schizophrenia that counters stereotypes and points out that prejudice is increasingly subtle and driven underground.

How effective are these campaigns?

Research suggests that campaign efforts aimed at reducing discrimination towards those suffering from a mental illness fall short of producing a measurable impact. But this isn’t unique to mental illness campaigns; the vast majority of social marketing efforts—that is, marketing efforts aimed at advancing a social message or affecting attitudes and behaviours—are usually only able to register, if measurement is done at all, a slight increase in awareness levels.

We live in a society that tends to disregard advertising the first few times it is viewed. To be effective, ad campaigns aimed at changing the mindset of the public must be sustained, and combined with multiple approaches. Advocacy at a systems level, to draw attention to policies and procedures in society that discriminate against people with mental illness, is one approach. Grassroots interaction, to bring people with personal experience of mental illness in direct and meaningful contact with those most likely to change their attitudes, is another approach.

We also need to consider how we’re evaluating ‘success’ and measuring changes in prejudice levels. Do we survey potential members of the discriminating public to test their attitude shifts (and can a research tool honestly tease out politically incorrect attitudes?), or do we poll people who have been stigmatized in the past to gauge their sense of changes in community responses over time? Or do we look at behaviours themselves? All of these are difficult questions.

There are critics who suggest that money and energy are better spent on recovery and treatment options for people with mental disorders, as they are the most likely avenue to effect change.

Although there is a definite increase in awareness surrounding mental illnesses, we still have a long way to go in terms of social acceptance. Mass media messages may be one tool in the arsenal, but are by no means a magic bullet.

About the Author

Naomi is an undergraduate Communications and Publishing co-op student from Simon Fraser University. She currently works in the Public Education Department of Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division

  1. Buchwald, A. (1999). Celebrity meltdown: Famous, important people who have suffered depression. Psychology Today, 32(6), 46.

  2. Stuart, H & ArboledaFlôrez, J. (2001). Community attitudes toward people with schizophrenia. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 46, 245-252.

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