COVID-19: Could the Pandemic Decrease the Stigma Associated with Mental Illness?

There have been many articles that discuss resiliency and coping through finding meaning during this crisis.  As a main focus of my job is to increase people’s knowledge of mental illness while also decreasing stigma, one questioning thought I’ve had: will we’ll see a positive attitude shift around stigma of mental illnesses? Stigma here referring to the negative attitudes and behaviours towards all areas of mental illness including; the people living with mental illnesses; treatments of mental illnesses; causes and symptoms. 

I ask this question as for many it is only when we truly relate to something that we can empathize more, and currently, it is pretty safe to assume that we are all experiencing some level of mental health struggles.  Major life changes have happened, and continue to happen everyday.  More people are struggling with childcare, finances, health problems, and all this with a level of underlying uncertainty. The anxiety, the stress, the loss, the uncertainty, all can be a part of regular day life for people living with mental illnesses. 

Since this quarantine ask yourself if your eating habits have changed? Are you consuming more alcohol or drugs? Has your motivation to work increased or decreased?  Let’s take those questions and now translate this into our regular work environments where a colleague might not be performing, is isolating themselves from others and is believed to be using a lot of alcohol or drugs.  We might perceive them as “lazy” because they slack off, or they just want to complain all the time, or are weak because they need drugs or alcohol.  Dismissing these behaviours as character defects of a person going through an illness is stigmatizing if these behaviours are symptoms of an underlying mental illness.  We wouldn’t say that someone who is going through chemotherapy is weak or lazy and is just faking it all to try and get out of work.  Nor should we be judging others right now who have lost loved ones, their jobs, their relationships, their businesses to COVID-19 as being weak or lazy because they can’t get out of bed or need that extra drink to help them sleep tonight.

On the flip side when discussing stigma, making assumptions that negative performance behaviours are always indications of mental illness is also a form of stigma. We need to stop assuming that all negative behaviours at work are merely symptoms of a person living with a mental illness.  Performance issues have other causes.  It could be the person just does not like their job, their supervisor, their coworkers, and so they don’t feel motivated.  Or this person never learned proper work ethic, which is not a mental illness.  Or this person is actually a top performer and now they are over working.  In fact many top performing executives and managers report high levels of anxiety and self-doubt, which can stem from feelings that they are never doing enough. 

So how can you tell the difference between someone experiencing symptoms of a mental illness vs. performance issues or character flaws? Look for changes in the persons’ behaviours, emotions, and appearance.  

Behaviours: Ask yourself if this person was previously good employee?  Are they calling in sick more than they used to? Are they making more mistakes or lagging behind? Are they working a lot of overtime? Are they withdrawing from others?

Emotions: Do they seem more anxious, scared, angry, or upset than usual? Have you seen emotional outbursts such as crying or anger?

Appearance: Are they wearing the same clothes as usually required for their work environment? Have you noticed changes in their weight, loss or gain? Do they have bags under their eyes and look exhausted all the time?

Circling back, I hope that we all recognize the toll this major life change has taken on our own behaviours, emotions and appearance.  I hope more of us come out of this with a heightened sense of empathy and understanding for people living with a mental illness considering we have just had a taste of what many people with chronic mental illnesses experience on a regular basis. Also knowing the toll this has had on so many people, I hope this leads to more awareness and resources to better support people living with mental illnesses regardless if they had this prior to COVID-19 or as a result of COVID-19.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Christine Fuda is the Mental Health First Aid Coordinator at Ontario Shores. During the pandemic, she will be blogging regularly around the impact of COVID-19 from a mental health perspective. Send your suggestions for topics to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.