Exploring the Many Factors Which Causes Stigma to Present in Young People

Children as young as five years old will demonstrate stigma related to mental illness noted Judeline Innocent, RN, PhD, as she presented evidence that stigma in children can be combated with a simple storybook solution at the Grand Rounds held at Ontario Shores on Thursday, April 2.

Innocent, the Dean of the School of Health and Community Services at Durham College and adjunct professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, is a designated Mental Capacity Assessor by the Ministry of the Attorney General of Ontario and she completed a funded research study based on developing strategies to reduce stigma for the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Dr. Innocent has a notable background in nursing, law, teaching, health and mental health operations.

Innocent’s study outlined the factors that contribute to stigma in children, adults and seniors. Stigma in children tends to be introduced through television and friends/classmates. Young children will use negative descriptive words they do not understand to communicate their feelings on mental illness. Factors related to stigma in adults include the media, labels of mental illness, illness-related behavior, and characteristics of treatment (such as side effects of medication or homelessness). Stigma in seniors can be caused by ideations related to hearing, memory, confusion, labels, and illness related behaviour.

Innocent presented some findings from her research study and Queen’s University thesis paper: “Can mental health education using a storybook reduce mental illness stigma in children?” In her study, children completed the Youth Opinion Survey for stereotype and social distance measurement using 11 different attributions in a pre-test and post-test format. The post-test was conducted after children read the mental illness educational storybook, and had varying results. Some scores improved, some decreased and others stayed the same – however, in the “belief of recovery” area of the survey, attitudes improved significantly. Students used more positive words to describe someone with a mental illness. The book also decreased children’s desire for social distance from someone struggling with mental illness. Overall, exposure to the storybook was effective in transforming the negative connotation students associated with mental illness into something much more positive.

Moving forward, Innocent believes legislation is needed to prevent discrimination against those who are stigmatized due to mental illnesses. Her presentation introduced anti-stigma strategies focusing on education, protest, contact and legislation. Her approach to developing a solid mental health strategy incorporates tackling stigma, improving community-based services, supporting self-help, breaking the silence and improving the overall understanding of mental health in the public.