In 2012, building on the success of its Let’s Talk campaign, Bell Canada pledged funding to support research that tackled mental health stigma. Heather Stuart, an internationally renowned professor in community health and epidemiology here at Queen’s was a natural fit for the role, and was named the Bell Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair, the first of its kind in the world.
By the time this chair was established, Dr. Stuart had been listening for 15 years, both with the WPA and with the Mental Health Commission of Canada, which had also approached her for advice on how to eradicate stigma nationwide. “We had learned that knowledge isn’t the key to overcoming stigma. The key is to change behaviours.”
Following Dr. Stuart’s advice, the Opening Minds Anti-stigma initiative of the Mental Health Commission assembled a team of researchers from five Canadian universities to focus their efforts and affect change.
The initiative used an approach called “contact-based education,” in which people living with mental illnesses – not actors or researchers – deliver the message and answer questions. The result was an impressive record of intended behavioural change that garnered an Innovation Award from the international research community and put Canada at the forefront of the anti-stigma movement.
Shortly before accepting the Bell chair, Dr. Stuart met with Bell Let’s Talk representatives and senior Bell executives to discuss what a partnership could mean for broadening efforts against stigma. It quickly became clear that the Bell Let’s Talk initiative would be the ideal public platform to give Dr. Stuart’s research a national voice, and soon after, the “Breaking the Silence” discussion series was born.
Every year since the chair was unveiled, Dr. Stuart has joined Canadian celebrities and Bell Let’s Talk representatives in a public forum to inspire open discussions around mental health issues in Canadian cities, hosted in partnership with Queen’s University Alumni Association branches in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, and Vancouver.
When she isn’t helping Canadians talk openly about mental illnesses, Dr. Stuart has been working to eradicate stigma by changing behaviours— among individuals and organizations. As part of her role with the Mental Health Commission of Canada, Dr. Stuart worked with Statistics Canada to include questions about stigma in its 2016 Canadian Community Health Survey.
As a result of this inclusion, the way national data is collected now takes into account reporting on stigma. “We now know how people experience stigma and what impact it has,” Dr. Stuart says. “We know how many people experience it and how severe it is. And now researchers all over Canada are analyzing it and producing knowledge around stigma.” It was an important addition to Canada’s national data practices and signalled a vital change in the way Statistics Canada reports on mental health.
While much of Dr. Stuart’s work has concentrated on healthcare providers, the media, workplaces, and youth, one of her most impressive accomplishments focused on the behaviours of all Canadians. In 2013, through the partnership between Queen’s and Bell Let’s Talk, Dr. Stuart introduced five simple ways all Canadians can reduce stigma— through language, education, kindness, listening, and talking.
Four years later, these five ways are at the forefront of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, and have broken down barriers to allow Canadians to share their mental health stories during Bell Let’s Talk Day through social media with the hashtag #BellLetsTalk.
This past week, we celebrated the renewal of the Bell Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair. As she gets set to begin her second term, Dr. Stuart is looking forward to changing more behaviours. She is currently working on an online educational program to help deliver tailored learning experiences to high school students.
She has also worked with Bell and human resources consultant Morneau Shepell to develop an online certificate course for workplace supervisors. This collaboration has important implications for workplaces across the country.
Mostly, though, Dr. Stuart looks forward to building on the accomplishments of the last five years. “We tried a lot of things,” she says. “We feel we know what works most effectively. Now we have to be more tailored and specific and think about matching interventions to need. That’s the challenge for the next five years.”
Please share your thoughts by commenting on the blog, or better yet, drop by the Macklem House…my door is always open.
Thank you to our alumni relations team for their assistance in preparing this blog.