Health workers urged to fight their own bias about mental illness

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail Last updated on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2009 08:31 PM EDT

Some of the worst discrimination and stigma faced by people suffering mental illness comes from their health-care providers, the chairman of the Mental Health Commission of Canada says.

Michael Kirby exhorted Canada's doctors yesterday to "demonstrate a commitment to healing" by tackling head-on myths and stereotypes about people with mental illness.

"I challenge you to help us change public attitudes, to reduce stigma and discrimination. You can play an invaluable role in improving the lives of people living with mental illness 

"I challenge you to help us change public attitudes, to reduce stigma and discrimination. You can play an invaluable role in improving the live of people living with mental illness by becoming a community leader on the stigma issue," he said in address to the 141st annual meting of the Canadian Medical Association, taking place this week in Montreal.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada, created last year, has among its priorities the development of a national mental-health strategy and a long-term stigma-reduction campaign.

Federal Health Minister Tony Clement announced yesterday that he was more than doubling the commission's budget, to $130-million over 10 years.

Mr. Kirby said the stigma faced by people living with mental-health problems such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia is often worse than the illness itself.

As such, he said the commission will take a multi-pronged approach htat includes promoting interaction with people living with mental illness and challenging discrimanitory practices in government and the private sector.

"One of the first targets for our anti-stigma campaign is health-care professionals," Mr. Kirby said.

Austin Mardon, an Edmonton Man who suffers from schizophrenia, told the CMA conference that the public - including health professionals - has an unwarranted fear of people with mental illness. In particular, they worry that people with mental illness will be violent when, in reality, "they are far more likely to harm themselves than others."

Mr. Mardon said there is also an erroneous assumption that people with chronic-health conditions cannot have normal social lives and loving relationships.

For example, he said most people wrongly assume that his spouse suffers from mental illness, too. "But you know the feeling," he quipped. "Everybody assumes a doctor is married to a doctor."

Donald Milliken, former president of the Canadian Psychiatric Association, said there is a growing body of literature showing the intimate connection between mental and physical health that physicians cannot afford to ignore.

He noted that, on average schizophrenics have a life expectancy 20 years shorter than a member of the general population; for someone with depression, it is 10 years less.

These huge gaps are not due strictly to higher rates of suicide but to physical conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

"There must be a conscious decision that mental illnesses are medically important," Dr. Milliken said.

Austin Mardon, CM
Telephone: 1-780-378-0063
Post Office Box 1223, Main Post Office,
Edmonton, Alberta, CANADA,
T5J 2M4
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