Get to know Fred Wagner, Executive Director of CMHA Waterloo Wellington. This is the first in a series of ‘Faces of CMHA’ stories to give you a glimpse of the people who spend each day working to make a difference at the Canadian Mental Health Association:
As Executive Director of the Waterloo Wellington Branch of the CMHA, I am well acquainted with self-imposed stigma. I carry a diagnosis of major depression and anxiety and receive treatment for it. I have experienced mental illness for many years, but it’s only recently that I have come to accept it as part of who I am and not in any way reflective of my character or self-worth.
Stigma is a word often associated with mental illness. According to Merriam-Webster, stigma is defined as a mark of shame. It is an internal experience of feeling ashamed and unworthy because of a particular quality, situation or characteristic. Unfortunately, far too many of us who experience mental illness see it as a character flaw, a defect or a sign of our unworthiness, and therefore, something that should remain hidden and unacknowledged.
Research confirms this and highlights that a significant proportion of members of the public considered that people with mental health problems such as depression or schizophrenia were unpredictable and dangerous, and they would be less likely to employ someone with a mental health problem. This is the case even though research shows that people with a mental illness are no more violent or unpredictable than people without a mental illness.
Research shows that people with a mental illness are no more violent or unpredictable than people without a mental illness.
We know that mental illness touches a large percentage of Canadians at one point or another. One in five Canadians experience a mental illness or addiction problem in any given year, and by the time Canadians reach 40 years of age, one in two have – or have had – a mental illness.
If we include those who are indirectly affected by mental illness through a family member or friend, then it is only the rarest of individuals who is not touched by mental illness. For the longest time, we have been unwilling to acknowledge that mental illness is a common human experience and have preferred to keep it in the shadows.
Thankfully, this is beginning to change as people come to understand the facts. Mental illness is not a character flaw and not something to be ashamed of. It occurs as a result of the interactions between our genetic makeup and our life experiences and circumstances. And, most importantly, there are more effective treatments available than ever before to help people live a full and meaningful life despite having a mental illness.
Mental illness is not a character flaw and not something to be ashamed of.
It is also encouraging to have corporations such as Bell Canada step out and encourage public conversations about mental illness through Bell Let’s Talk Day. Additionally, many prominent celebrities and athletes are coming forward to share their experience with mental illness. The more this happens, the more acceptable it is becoming to talk about mental illness and the more unacceptable it becomes not to acknowledge its presence.
We can go a long way to eradicating the stigma of mental illness by realizing how common it is, challenging misconceptions, informing ourselves of the facts, and having the courage to engage others in conversations about it. If mental illness is acknowledged and understood, then people will not suffer in silence, they will seek help and will pave the way for others to come forward as well.