Overcoming mental health stigma through education

Javeed Sukhera

Approximately 20 per cent of the Canadian population lives with mental illness, yet more than 60 per cent of those affected will choose not to seek the help they need. Stigma — negative attitudes and the behaviours those attitudes produce — is one of the main reasons why.

Despite their best intentions and the many resources available today, health care professionals and medical environments are not yet free of these stigmatizing attitudes.

As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, Dr. Javeed Sukhera comes face-to-face with stigma and bias in health care environments on a daily basis. It was these experiences that inspired him to focus his current research on innovative ways to reduce stigma and reduce the adverse impact of stigma on patient care.

“The issue of bias is a problem for many people and populations that are marginalized from the system, but my research focuses specifically on how bias affects the health care experience with mental illness,” Dr. Sukhera said. “I am using educational interventions informed by cognitive psychology research on unconscious bias to help reduce stigmatizing attitudes in physicians and nurses to help improve patient experiences.”

An assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry, Dr. Sukhera’s research is focused on the emergency department, where patients in physical distress are often prioritized for treatment over patients in emotional distress. He has found that stigma leads to distancing, which leads to avoidance, which leads to patients with mental illness being treated differently.

While there is a lot of research on stigma being conducted, Dr. Sukhera’s research aims to look at areas that have not yet been explored. He is particularly interested in finding ways to address someone’s negative attitudes without them experiencing psychological kickback — becoming defensive and feeling threatened — which increases the chances that their stigmatizing behaviour will continue.

Even though this research is being applied to mental health scenarios, it could also be applied broadly toward any population that is underserved in the system, such as racial and sexual minorities.

“I’ve always been interested in educational research, and a lot of my educational work has been related to diversity, cross-cultural medicine and understanding the social determinants of health,” Dr. Sukhera said. “But this research also speaks to my desire to think of interventions that don’t shame people, but rather help them take responsibility for the negative effects of their bias, and to educate about stigma in a non-threatening way.”

With Bell Let’s Talk Day becoming a bigger event each year, Dr. Sukhera believes the conversation continues to move in the right direction. Additionally, he thinks we need to continue opening up the conversation on a day-to-day basis, and work to de-stigmatize mental health issues in schools and the work place.

“I think we’ve done a good job with talking about mental health issues, but there is still work to do in terms of how dysfunctional our mental health system is in Ontario, and how severe the lack of mental health resources are for people who need the help,” he said.