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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

How to start the conversation

When celebrated children’s author Robert Munsch began to struggle with his mental health, the first step toward wellness was the simplest. It was also the toughest.

“The stigma attached to mental illness kept me from going for help for 20 years,” he said. In a 2013 conversation with the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), Munsch spoke about his long struggle with the stigma around mental illness, prior to his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and his related dependence on alcohol.

That first step of “going to talk to someone” was a “no-brainer,” he explained, but it required an enormous amount of courage because of the negative stereotypes toward mental illness. “It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter how good you are. You can have a problem. Being open and having a support group is vital to beating it.”

For people who live with mental and substance use disorders, being open about mental health can definitely help. But building understanding and reducing stigma more generally is also crucial for helping them get the care they need without hesitation.

Stigma is a pervasive problem
A 2022 poll conducted by Leger found stigma to be a pervasive problem for people living with mental or substance use disorders in Canada: 95 per cent reported experiencing stigma in the past five years, while 72 per cent reported experiencing “self-stigma” (internalizing negative prejudices). Perhaps more tellingly, the survey found that people in Canada “expect individuals with mental health or substance use disorders to be devalued and discriminated against in their day-to-day lives.”

Survey respondents also cited stigma reduction as one of three main priorities for improving recovery and access to care (alongside greater access to care and more preventive mental health services). Clearly, reducing stigma and all of its negative effects is a crucial step in giving those who experience mental health and substance use problems the care they deserve.

Why it matters
The MHCC’s Opening Minds training division was developed for just that reason: to reduce discrimination resulting from negative attitudes around mental illness and substance use. It’s now the largest systemic effort dedicated to reducing stigma in the country. Since it began in 2009, almost a million people in Canada have been trained in at least one of the Opening Minds courses or programs. That number continues to grow as workplaces, classrooms, and companies (large and small) recognize the importance of fostering a psychologically healthy and safe environment.

As an organization, the MHCC has deep expertise with the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the Standard), which was developed and launched in 2013 to provide guidelines on how to promote mental health and recognize and support those experiencing mental health concerns or illnesses. While more and more organizations are recognizing the benefits of psychological health and safety, many don’t know where to start. In such cases, one of the best foundations for building such a culture is Opening Minds training.

Opening Minds training also includes Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), The Working Mind (TWM), and The Inquiring Mind (TIM) programs. With so many people, organizations, and communities across the country taking part, you may already be one of their graduates (and even have the certification on your LinkedIn profile).

People who have participated in Opening Minds programs feel more confident and empowered when talking with someone experiencing a mental health problem or crisis. Firefighter Steve Jones said he felt that he’d saved more lives as a trainer with The Working Mind — First Responders program than in his 20 years of experience in the job.

Mental Health First Aid
MHFA is similar to regular first aid: It trains people on how to provide immediate help for someone experiencing a mental health problem or crisis until appropriate treatment can be found.

While it can prevent a current difficulty from becoming more serious, it also has wider benefits. Evidence shows that MHFA reduces stigma, increases understanding of mental crises signs and symptoms, and gives participants the confidence to approach a person who is experiencing such a problem.

MHFA participants have said the program changed them for the better by making them more empathetic and understanding toward people experiencing mental health problems.

The Working Mind and The Inquiring Mind
TWM’s evidence-based courses are designed to reduce stigma in the workplace. Along with the standard TWM course, versions tailored for people working in the first responder, health care, legal, and sports sectors are also available.

The course has been adopted by corporate, non-profit, and government organizations across the country, with more than 260,000 people trained so far.

Participants and trainers have also found that TWM has increased their empathy and understanding and has also had an immediate positive effect on their workplaces.

TIM is an adaptation of TWM to suit university or college settings.

Simple communication
Now, the Opening Minds website has re-launched, with a new, simplified design and a web portal that make it easier to browse courses or conduct searches based on specific criteria. Users will also be able to view detailed course outlines and facilitator profiles while keeping track of their own learning history.

These enhancements will enable the MHCC to continue working toward ensuring that everyone can expect a workplace or learning environment that values and supports their psychological safety. The more streamlined and efficient format will also help Opening Minds continue its leadership in delivering evidence-based programs to reduce stigma.

Getting past stigma, his own and others, has made all the difference for Munsch.

“People have to realize that mental illness is something wrong with the way our brains work, and there are various things now that you can treat it with.”

Resource: The new Opening Minds website

Author: has been writing professionally for over 20 years in journalism and communications. A graduate of Carleton University’s bachelor of arts and Algonquin’s journalism programs, he has worked as a reporter and editor for daily, weekly, and community newspapers. He is a writer with the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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