Mental illness still carries a stigma.
Mental illness still carries a stigma.

Diagnosed with anxiety a few years ago, Sara Kohtala knows about mental illness. But the U of G psychology student didn’t know what stigma meant until she encountered it last fall at a hospital.

After an allergic reaction to peanuts prompted breathing difficulties and swelling, she called emergency. En route to the hospital, she listed her anxiety medications for the ambulance attendants.

Later a hospital doctor told her she was just having an anxiety attack. “I couldn’t believe it,” Kohtala says. A medical professional mixed up allergy and mental illness symptoms?

“I felt ashamed after leaving the hospital. I felt ashamed that I had ‘wasted his time’ when, in reality, it’s his job to help me with my emergency and not blame my symptoms of the allergic reaction on my mental illness.”

The incident brought home what she and her classmates in a new first-year seminar course last fall semester had learned just weeks earlier.

Shame and stigma are key messages in the course, called “That’s Crazy?! Stigma, Mental Illness and the Power of Language,” taught by PhD student Kim Wilson, Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition (FRAN).

It’s no small matter, says Wilson. Each year, one in five Canadians will experience a mental health issue. And it’s complicated, she adds. “You can have a mental illness and still have great mental health. Or you may not have a mental illness, but maybe you’re not taking care of your mental health.”

Things aren’t helped when people throw words around, even without hurtful intent. Hence the emphasis on language in the course title, says Wilson. “We’re putting it right out there. What impact do these words have for people? Crazy: That isn’t funny or supportive.”

Psychology student Dana Kondo figured the course might help in a potential hospital career.

“I used to say things like, ‘Wow, they’re crazy.’ But since taking this course, I’ve realized the power my words carry and how I could really be hurting someone. So many people use stigmatizing words every day to the point where it’s become normal, and it’s not okay.”

The class discusses the impacts and history of stigma, perspectives on mental illness and how society responds to mental illness, including stigmatizing language. Wilson lined up several guest speakers and a class visit to Guelph’s Homewood Health Centre this semester.

She has plenty of experience in dealing with mental health issues. Until this past summer, she was executive director of the Canadian Coalition for Seniors’ Mental Health. She also belonged to the seniors’ advisory committee of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, which developed a national mental health strategy.

Last year she belonged to the steering committee for the Older Adult Strategy for the City of Guelph. That initiative aims to ensure seniors can gain access to programs such as transportation and community services.

Seniors especially can run into difficulties, says Wilson. Mental health issues can be confused with cognitive problems and other mental and physical signs of aging. Interactions among those conditions may make it difficult for health professionals to address problems correctly.

“As people age, it’s rare to have just one health issue. One-quarter of older adults have four or more chronic conditions.”

Wilson studied gerontology for her undergrad and completed a master’s of social work at the University of Toronto in 2006. She began her PhD in 2008 with now retired FRAN professor Joseph Tindale.

She designed the first-year seminar with funding from a teaching and career development fellowship. That award was sponsored by the office of the U of G provost along with Local 3913 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

Wilson has taught senior undergrad courses in gerontology and hopes to teach full-time after graduation. “I love teaching. It’s so exciting to have an opportunity to help shape people’s opinions and thoughts.”