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Three V.A.S.E. (Voices Against Stigma Everywhere) speakers – Ian, Lynn, and Renee – contributed their insights on the subject of stigma and mental illness . They sat down with us to discuss how stigma has affected them and an edited version of the discussion follows below.

Did you find that important people in your life – family, friends, co-workers, etc. – acted differently towards you before and after you experienced mental health problems? If so, in what ways?

IAN: If you can’t hide your struggles, you lose the trust of others. When they picture you as having a mental health disability, they don’t trust you to be reliable. Mental illness was something I felt I wanted to hide, but when I couldn’t I felt suspicion, rejection and mistrust.

RENEE: I think there is a fear – not a fear of you so much as a fear of setting you off. My mom would say she felt she was always walking on eggshells around me. It created tension and it wasn’t until my mom experienced mental illness herself that a greater understanding developed.

LYNN: My experience hasn’t been one of stigma from others. The people close to me I felt compassion from. But I would stigmatize myself – I felt that my depression was a deficiency to be embarrassed of. I saw it as a personal weakness, not an illness.

Do you think some healthcare providers hold stigmatizing attitudes towards people with lived experience?

IAN (laughs): Go spend a night or a week in a ward – you are depersonalized. You need your meds at such-and-such a time; otherwise you are put in your cubicle. I experienced a lack of empathy, a lack of support.

RENEE: It depends. I’ve had really positive experiences with nurses. I’ve had bad experiences too – I had one nurse ask me, upon hospitalization, “Do you like being in the hospital?” I think, “If I had a diabetic episode, would this matter? Or would you just provide the care the person needed?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone say to me, “You are bipolar.” And I respond, “No, I’m Renee.”

What about self-stigma? Do you see yourself through the lens of your diagnosis?

LYNN: A diagnosis is a double-edged sword – it can give you insight into what you’ve gone through and what you can do to get better. It’s like another V.A.S.E. speaker says, “I realized I wasn’t wicked or weak; I was ill.” At times, though, people use it to define who you are. What a different world it would be if you didn’t have to worry about it being held against you … if treatment for mental illness were like physiotherapy, for example.

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