By Robyn Thomas
Three out of four people with a mental illness report that they have experienced stigma.
Stigma is a mark of disgrace that sets a person apart. When a person is labelled by their illness, they are seen as part of a stereotyped group. Negative attitudes create prejudice, which leads to negative actions and discrimination.
Some groups are subjected to multiple types of stigma and discrimination at the same time, such as people with an intellectual disability or those from a cultural or ethnic minority and a mental illness. The Stigma-Free Society aims to create awareness of the various stigmas that exist in the world, develop an understanding of the challenges that numerous people face, and encourage all people to foster acceptance of themselves and others.
The society has a true grassroots history. President and founder Andrea Paquette originally created a “bipolar babe” T-shirt and website to share her personal mental health journey of living with bipolar disorder so others did not suffer in silence like she once did.
In 2009, when Paquette started sharing her story, it was heavily taboo to talk about mental illness or broach the topic of suicide. This stigma led to feelings of hopelessness and low self-worth, which she addresses through sharing her personal story.
“There have been times throughout my existence when I believed my fate was sealed — a sad life with an unfortunate ending.
“I had been diagnosed at the age of 25 with bipolar disorder, and not only did my life inevitably change, but I truly felt my world topple into a million pieces. I barely escaped homelessness, and there were moments when I did not want to live – I just wanted to leave this bipolar body that taunted me endlessly. I surrendered any life that I had left; my attempt to end my life nearly spelled my doom.
“However, I managed to find hope in the situations I endured. My life is nowhere near perfect, and nobody’s life ever is flawless. However, I am so grateful and overwhelmingly happy that I did not succeed at taking my own life. I have learned how to be hopeful.
“There have been too many instances in my life when I cared what people thought about me. As I have come to accept my bipolar disorder, I have learned that I am worthy of happiness. I have a mental illness, but that does not make me less worthy of a good life filled with love and possibility. It took me over four years to realize this truth; I hope that it doesn’t take anyone else as long to learn their own worth.”
Paquette’s efforts led to meeting supportive and dedicated individuals in the local Victoria community who originally formed the Bipolar Disorder Society of British Columbia in 2010. A bright pink T-shirt with the words “bipolar babe” on the front has led to a movement to stomp out stigmas that allow negative attitudes and perceptions of people with differences to persist.
Paquette originally made the T-shirt to overcome feelings of shame related to her diagnosis of bipolar disorder and empower herself. More than helping herself, the T-shirt became the impetus to start a not-for-profit charitable organization dedicated to spreading acceptance, understanding and empathy. The charity changed its name to the Stigma-Free Society in August 2016, to expand its mandate and include the conversation around all stigmas, with a focus on mental health.
The Stigma-Free Society is now nationally recognized and is unique in that it hosts virtual stigma-free presentations created by people with lived experiences offering support and help to all.
The Stigma-Free Society believes that when people’s stories of “lived experiences” are shared and highlighted, then attitudes begin to shift in society as there is a face behind the illness.
The society also provides educational toolkit resources for use in schools. These include, strategies, lesson plans and extensive resources for teachers, mental health professionals, caregivers and youth organizations.
It’s an innovative and engaging way to create social, emotional learning for young people, and help them improve their mental health and “stomp out stigma.”
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Robyn Thomas is content creator for The Stigma-Free Society. For more information visit www.stigmafreesociety.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The “Open Mind” column is sponsored by community partners who are committed to raising awareness about mental health, reducing stigma and providing information about resources that can help. For local mental health resources/information, visit www.mdsgg.ca or call 1-844-HERE247.