New mental well-being initiative aims to help youth to dispel the stereotypes and stigmas that surround mental health.

By Zoe Demarco

 

Using a faded purple marker, a counsellor writes “stereotypes” across the whiteboard at the front of the classroom. Rain falls in sheets outside, creating a peaceful soundtrack that reverberates off the white brick walls. Behind her, a group of 13- to 15-year-old campers is splayed across three grey couches, watching intently as she scribbles.

It’s the final week of ME to WE’s Take Action Camp for the summer of 2018, and the group of 15 youth have gathered for a workshop on mental well-being to help them challenge not just the stereotypes, but also the stigmas and statistics around mental health.

A team of experts working with WE created this workshop—run once per week throughout July and August—to see if early education about the risk factors that can precede mental illnesses will motivate youth to use prevention strategies for themselves and others.

The workshop was developed as part of the WE Well-being initiative, and run as a pilot before the official launch in September.

During the one-hour workshop, the campers at the week-long sleepover camp were presented with six statements and asked to decide if they were stereotypes or statistics about mental health by choosing to move to one side of the room or the other.

Turning back to face the seemingly confident campers, her tie-dye dress spinning with her, the counsellor reads the first statement: “You can overcome a mental illness if you work hard and have a positive attitude.”

This one isn’t difficult. The campers collectively stand and walk in a group to the left, or “stereotype,” side of the room, the shuffling of their feet mixing with the thunder in the distance.

“Why are you so sure it’s a stereotype?” the councilor asks.

“You don’t choose to get over cancer,” says a girl in a faded turquoise hoodie. “You don’t choose to get over a mental illness.”

“If you fall and break your leg and someone tells you to change your mindset, you’re not going to be able to get up and walk away. It’s the same thing,” adds another participant who’s wrapped in a red plaid blanket.

As the counsellor explains, they’re correct: like any physical illness, a mental illness is not something that someone can choose to have, or choose to recover from.

Subsequent statements touch on such issues as the onset of mental illnesses in children and youth, and the imbalance in funding allotted to physical and mental health services. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CAMH) reports that of Ontario’s $54 billion health care budget, only $3.5 billion is allotted to mental health and addiction services.

The left, or stereotype, half of the room fills with shocked whispers when they learn that, according to CAMH, 70 per cent of mental health problems have their onset in childhood or adolescence. Two girls, both with their long hair tied up in ponytails, whip their heads toward each other, mouths agape.

“I thought that they could appear anytime, like after trauma,” explains one camper, leaning against the stereotype wall. “I assumed people just talk more about mental illnesses in kids, not that they’re actually more likely to have one.”

As the two sides rejoin in the centre of the room in anticipation of the next round, another camper who had chosen stereotype explains her answer to the group.

“Older generations are obsessed with changing teenagers. They’re always saying we have issues. My mom says that everything is hard for me right now because my mind is changing,” she says. “But I don’t know if she’s saying that as my mother or [because she thinks she’s] my doctor.”

Presented with the statement “People experiencing homelessness are more likely to also experience a mental illness,” the majority slowly gravitate to the right, signifying they believe it’s a statistic. When they’re asked to take a stance on whether they find truth behind the idea that “people with a mental illness are more likely to have a substance abuse problem,” the lion’s share stays on the right.

The counsellor explains that, unfortunately, they are correct. People who are homeless are more likely to experience compromised mental health and illness, and prolonged homelessness can cause the decline of both. Those with mental illnesses are twice as likely to have a substance abuse problem compared to the general population.

“I want to believe that it’s a stereotype … but from personal experience I know that it’s a statistic [that people with mental illnesses often have a substance abuse problem],” says a tall girl with shoulder-length auburn hair.

A debate sparks when the counsellor presents this statement: “People who experience mental illness can be unpredictable and therefore more dangerous or potentially violent.”

The majority is on the statistic side, but three campers break away from the pack and hold strong to their belief that it’s a stereotype. Their reasoning, explains a tall boy in an olive-green sweater, is that that is just how people with mental illnesses are portrayed in the media. Our society’s focus on extreme cases of violence and aggression is clouding our judgement of the community as a whole.

Mental illness is not a good predictor of violence, confirms the counsellor, and people with a mental illness are no more violent than people without one. In fact, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators, she explains. Often it is exclusion that causes violence, explains the counsellor, and people with mental illnesses are frequently excluded from communities.

As the discussion comes to an end, the counsellor turns back to the whiteboard. This time she jots down three points: “mass media,” “opinion leaders” and “persons of trust.” She explains to the wide-eyed campers that these are ways that they can continue to dispel the stereotypes and stigmas that surround mental illness long after this session, and camp, have come to an end.

In our digital age, social media is a powerful tool they can use to educate others and spread their newfound knowledge. By writing letters to political leaders and celebrities, urging them to take action and increase access to mental health services, young people can raise their voices and put the wheels of change in motion. And being a person of trust and reliable support system for someone who is struggling with their mental health can create a world of difference in their life.

“It took me by surprise how big of an issue stigmas are, and how many I already knew about,” reflects the girl in the faded turquoise hoodie. “Today helped me realize that I have different opportunities and ways to reduce the stigma around mental health. We should make mental health something that we’re fixing, not looking down on.”

Before the campers leave for the rest of the day’s activities, the counsellor presents them with three final statements to gage their understanding of the workshop. This time she asks them to raise their hands if they agree.

Almost all of them say that they now know more about the stigmas surrounding mental well-being, and that they feel better able to combat stigmas in their communities. When the counsellor asks if they feel more motivated to take action to improve the mental well-being of themselves and others, every hand in the room is held high.

“It’s important that you, as change-makers, actually act on this issue,” says the counsellor. “There is a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Learn more about WE’s proactive approach to positive well-being.

For information on mental health resources and support in your community, visit the Canadian Mental Health Association.

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