Researchers can fight mental illness stigma by going public

2 March 2016

By Genevieve Creighton

Over the course of my MSFHR postdoctoral study, Man Up Against Suicide, I interviewed men and women who lost a man to suicide.

One of my most powerful conversations was with a young woman named Aliana* whose 17-year-old brother had taken his own life the year before. For Aliana, her parents and sister, Noah’s* death was a shock. Noah was the “golden boy”; his shelves were crowded with the trophies of his athletic and academic accomplishments. He was well loved by friends and family and his future, by all accounts, looked bright. It was only in his final letter to his family that Noah revealed the depth of his depression and hopelessness.

* – Not their real names

Noah’s suicide illustrates the profound tragedy of the stigma associated with talking about mental illness. While 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental illness over the course of their lifetime, many are reluctant to talk about it for fear that they will be subjected to negative stereotypes and marginalization. The stigma of mental illness stands in the way of recovery for individuals and families.

Media plays an important role in people’s understanding of mental illness and drives public health policy agenda.  The stories that are reported and the conversations that ensue shape perceptions of the illness and those who are suffering. As research shows, what is too often highlighted in the media are themes of violence, family breakdown and social failure instead of evidence-based representations of mental illness and pathways to recovery.

To combat the stigma surrounding mental illness, researchers need to do a better job of engaging with media.

Many are hesitant or unsure about how to talk about their work with journalists or communicate findings to broad audiences. Knowledge translation, or what is now being called “public scholarship”, is not a central part of academic training. We want to change that.

The inaugural national institute Going Public: Building Capacity for Knowledge Translation in Mental Health will take place this summer at the University of British Columbia. In this online and face-to-face institute, mental health researchers in health and social sciences will develop skills and tools for sharing their work through the media.

Participants will learn how to define an audience, design a media strategy, develop a “pitch”, write and speak to social and corporate media, and integrate a critical approach to KT.  With mentorship from highly regarded journalists and researchers with exceptional track records in media knowledge translation, participants will create a KT product based on their research.

Mental illness touches the lives of most Canadians. To reduce stigma and promote healthy outcomes, researchers can be public scholars, ready to step into media conversations with the latest findings and innovative ways of thinking about mental health.

Going Public: Building Capacity for Knowledge Translation in Mental Health
May 30 – June 27 (online)
July 4 – 8 (in person)

Register by April 18

Dr. Genevieve Creighton holds a Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of British Columbia and is currently working on a photo voice study called Man-Up Against Suicide. Her primary area of research is gender and health with a focus on the way that physical and social geographies have bearing on social construction of masculinities and gendered health practices. She has a passionate interest in creating innovative strategies for knowledge translation in the community to stimulate conversation and dialogue on the issue on youth mental health.

Opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research.