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Committing to making a change

Embarrassment, disgrace and fear. The stigma that surrounds mental health is real and it’s not going away anytime soon. So what should people do to get rid of it? That was the discussion at this year’s Joseph Howe Symposium.

Embarrassment, disgrace and fear. The stigma that surrounds mental health is real and it’s not going away anytime soon.
So what should people do to get rid of it? That was the discussion at this year’s Joseph Howe Symposium.
One place to start is with talking, says Dr. David Pilon, a psychologist and program leader at Capital Health. He says stigma exists in mental illness because many people don’t understand it.
“I don’t know if that’s society doing something wrong or just collectively we’re not doing enough thoughtful dialoguing, information seeking and checking in with each other,” he said.
Glen Canning agrees. He’s the father of Rehtaeh Parsons, who died by suicide in April 2013.
Canning believes if the language around mental illness is to change, people must recognize and see mental illness as a struggle first and then show compassion. He says it would be hard to do since misunderstandings are so deeply ingrained in society.
André Picard has been a reporter at the Globe and Mail since 1987, where he currently works as a health columnist. Over 25 years of experience in journalism has given Picard a sense of language’s capacity to evolve, even within one paper.
“There have been big changes. I use the example of ‘committing
suicide’. At my paper, we don’t use that anymore – we say died by suicide because we realize that’s a loaded term,” he says.
Up until 1972, suicide was illegal in Canada. If someone took their own life, they had committed a crime; hence the term “committing suicide.”
Picard’s choice of words is crucial. A regular columnist for a major national newspaper, he plays a larger part than most in influencing not only the rhetoric of mental health reporting, but the way it’s addressed in everyday life.
Despite his years on the health beat, Picard hasn’t seen stigma break down evenly nationwide. He names Atlantic Canada and Northern Canada as places where he finds it more difficult to write mental health stories. He finds himself having to change his approach to suit more conservative attitudes.
“Everybody knows everybody’s business,” says Picard of small communities.
“I think you have to do more research, you have to be more conscious of the impact it’ll have on people. I think we’re careful when we write about these issues all the time, but maybe just a little bit of extra care of how it will impact the family (is needed).”
Pilon says most people who contemplate suicide, attempt suicide or die by suicide are very ill.
“That illness process compromises the integrity of how they think, how they function, how they feel, how they rationalize things.”
All of this makes someone with a mental illness feel hopeless. “They feel there is no possibility of change and they are so engulfed in shadows and darkness that living is harder than dying,” he says.
“If someone is afraid of seeking help… the only rational fear I can understand is that someone is afraid of change,” Pilon says.
“I don’t think people fully understand what the process of change and treatment might entail.”
Nonetheless, Pilon, Picard and Canning all agree things have drastically changed.
Canning says he’s seen changes in the way Halifax treats its patients due to mental health awareness after his daughter’s death. “Now you’re treated individually, not ‘what program can we stick you in?’”
But there’s one thing Canning is certain about regarding his daughter’s suicide.
He says his daughter never wanted to end her life and she planned a lot for her future before she died.
“It was a decision that happened in her mind that was beyond her control, and beyond her capability to stop.”

By David J. Shuman

David is a second-year journalism student at King's, is engagement/news editor of The Watch, and a copy editor of The Pigeon. He writes on student politics, campus happenings, and school news. 

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