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Creativity and connection: Women’s Xchange panelists fight mental health stigma

May 29, 2017

By Lindsay Jolivet

Social media, film, art, workshops: finding the tools to fight the negative attitudes and behaviours surrounding mental health requires creativity and focused resources. That was one of the key messages from panelists at the eighth Women’s Xchange event, Women’s Mental Health: Innovative Approaches to Reducing Stigma, attended by more than 160 people.

The event featured initiatives that are changing the conversation about mental health stigma. For example, the Sad Collective, an online community encourages people to share their feelings — good and bad — and find support when they need it. The founders of the Sad Collective, Meghan Yuri Young and Vasiliki Marapas, shared the personal experiences and goals that led them to start the initiative and use it as a platform to promote mental health.

A screening of an excerpt from the documentary The Blind Stigma shed light on mental health within the black community, an issue close to the heart of director and producer Stacy-Ann Buchanan.

Dr. Catharine Munn, an assistant clinical professor and the lead psychiatrist at McMaster University’s Student Wellness Centre, shared the effective approaches she has used as part of the university’s mental health and well-being strategy, which she co-leads. McMaster offers students sessions, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, that are framed as workshops for procrastination and stress reduction, or nature walks led by therapists. These more appealing sessions give students a safe space to talk about their mental health.

One in five Canadians believe they need help for a mental health concern, but stigma — from society, individuals, institutions and themselves — may prevent them from asking for help, said panelist Amanda Maranzan, PhD, a professor of psychology at Lakehead University and a member of the academic panel at the event.

Stigma takes different forms for men and women, because we see certain conditions, such as mood disorders, as being more “feminine.” Despite these perceptions, Maranzan said research about mental illness stigma often fails to consider gender as a factor.

Women also face particular risks for mental illness around the time of pregnancy. Dr. Simone Vigod, introduced her new initiative, called the Maternal Mental Health of Ontario Virtual Intervention Network (MOVIN’). MOVIN’ will use online interventions to reduce social, practical and geographical barriers for women facing conditions such as postpartum depression to access mental health services.

The director of the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health at the University of Toronto, Suzanne Stewart, PhD, presented on the legacy of colonization and the residential school system on mental health and stigma for Indigenous people in Canada. Even our definition of health is a construct of Western medicine, Stewart said, and does not incorporate Indigenous ways of understanding balance and spirituality.

Dr. Paula Rochon, vice-president of research at Women’s College Hospital, said the event was an incredible example of the power of forming communities to create change in society. “The speakers and the audience showed such drive and commitment to improving the lives of women and girls,” Dr. Rochon said.

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