Module 2: Stigma


Stigma is a set of negative beliefs and perceptions held by individuals that usually stems from lack of knowledge and/or understanding. In order for students to receive the support they need, we all need to reduce the stigma associated with mental health.  The Mental Health Commission of Canada defines stigma as "beliefs and attitudes about mental health problems and illnesses that lead to negative stereotyping of people and to prejudice against them."  Seeking treatment for a mental health issue should be viewed no differently than seeing a physician for a medical issue. The sooner treatment is started, the better the outcome. Viewing someone struggling with their mental health as "weak" or "not together," continues the stigma.  Making jokes about being "crazy" and/or "wacko" for example only continues to reinforce and support the stigma for those struggling to stay in the shadows.  We do not laugh at a person with diabetes nor would we tell someone to not take their insulin or tell them to "get over it".  Reducing the stigma begins with understanding mental health and the role we can play in helping, along with challenging our own language and that of others.  We don't want to trivialize the experience of a student. Each student's experience is his or her own unique experience and deserves to be respected and validated. It's important that we make no judgements regarding others' experiences. It may not be what we understand but the onus is on us to learn and know more as opposed to isolating a student who is struggling.

In Canada, many people still do not possess an adequate amount of knowledge about mental illness and often brand it as “something made-up," “a choice,” or “something people could easily get out of if they want to.” All of these views are negative and false and generate a stigma towards mental health, which makes it difficult for people living with a mental illness to seek help, get support, or even admit to themselves that there may be a problem.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (2010), one in five Canadians, over the course of their lives, will experience a mental illness and what that ultimately means is that every single family in Canada will in some way be affected. There is nobody in Canada who can stand up and say, "Not my family, not my aunts or uncles or cousins or grandparents, children, siblings, spouse or self." And yet the reluctance to talk about mental illness, to acknowledge it openly, to treat it as a form of human suffering like any other illness, relates in part to how threatening this set of illnesses is to our sense of who we are. Mental illness cuts across all age, racial, religious, or socio-economic categories.

Myth: Mental illness is associated with violent behaviour.

Fact: Individuals who are diagnosed with a mental illness are no more harmful to others than individuals who are not and, often, are more at risk of exercising physical harm on their own self or being the victims of physical harm by others. 

Fact: Mental Health has fallen behind physical health in terms of research and care given. As a result, there is still a level of misunderstanding associated which result in lack of acceptance mental health.

Fact: Poor mental health can be difficult to assess because it requires stepping forward and seeing a professional to get a full sense of the 'what is going on' - this is generally done by having an initial assessment. However, the stigma associated with talking to a counsellor or therapist or even admitting that there is a problem can stop individuals from seeking help.  Add to this the lack of support in society and it's understandable that people suffer in silence.  More mental illnesses are treatable and yet statistics say that only 1 in 6 people get the help they need. 

Myth: Young people and children don't suffer from mental illness.

Fact: It is estimated that more than 18% of young people (ages 15-24) in Canada may suffer from a mental health disorder that severely disrupts their ability to function at home, in school, or in the community. Suicide accounts for 24% of all deaths among 15-24 years old and 16% among 25-44 years old. Ninety percent of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental illness. The mortality rate due to suicide among men is four times the rate among women.

Language is important.

Understanding that an individual has a health problem (whether mental health or physical) also means being sensitive with the language that you use. Avoid hurtful and demeaning language whether individually or in a group. Referring to the student as “psycho,” “crazy,” or “insane,” for example, is cruel and only encourages the stigma around mental illness. The individual may have a “mental health problem” or “lived the experience of a mental condition”. By utilizing respectful language, you will make the student feel much more comfortable seeking your assistance and taking your advice in seeking help if needed. Be very careful not to offer a diagnosis, even if you recognize symptoms that may fall under a certain mental illness category or classification. To tell a student they are depressed, for example, may give them a label that they may not be ready for, and/or that may not be true, and subsequently, will not be helpful in moving them along to seek outside help.

The way to end stigma is by learning more, using respectful language, and offering support and understanding.


  • Stigma is a set of negative beliefs and perceptions held by individuals that stems from lack of knowledge and understanding.
  • Stigma makes it difficult for a person living with a mental illness to seek help, get support and even admit that there may be a problem.
  • Seeking treatment for a mental health issue should be viewed no differently than seeing a physician for a medical issue.
  • 1 in 5 Canadians over the course of their lives will experience a mental illness meaning every single family in Canada will in some way be affected by a mental illness.
  • It is important to know the facts about mental illnesses and use knowledge as the main means to fight stigma.
  • It is important to use respectful language that is sensitive of the fact that a person may live with a health problem, whether mental or physical.


Mental Illness on University Campuses -->