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Eliminating stigma, providing support an ongoing challenge, Kingston-area mental health workers say

WATCH: Mental health advocates in Kingston say the fight for positive mental health is still an ongoing one.

Bridging the gap between mental health support services and those who need them is often a struggle, according to Kingston-area mental health professionals. However, a recent funding initiative from the provincial government and a more open public conversation around mental health have some advocates optimistic about closing that divide.

For Heather Stuart, a professor at Queen’s University and a consultant with the Mental Health Commission of Canada, part of the challenge in addressing undiagnosed mental health issues comes from the stigma associated with seeking help.

“We … have this issue of stigma, and that is the fear that you’re going to be treated unfairly or differently because you have a diagnosis … [of] a mental illness,” she said.
World Mental Health Day
World Mental Health Day

As a result of this fear, Stuart says, people with unaddressed mental health concerns may not seek help in order to avoid feelings of shame. Instead, she explains, some try to manage things on their own.

Josh Goodbaum, associate director of the Addiction and Mental Health Services (AMHS) team for Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington, says this is part of why his organization tries to be proactive in addressing mental health concerns in the community.

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“There can be factors that come up for individuals that might make them reluctant or get in the way of their reaching out,” he explained. “That can be one of the big gaps and so, for us, that’s one of the reasons why we really aim to make our services as responsive and as accessible as possible.”

While fear is often a barrier for those looking to get help with mental health issues, Goodbaum says the good news is that larger public conversations, both provincially and nationally, have begun to tackle some of that stigma. According to AMHS, initiatives like World Mental Health Day, which was on Oct. 10, and Mental Illness Awareness Week, which ran from Oct. 6 to 12, can help diminish some of the hesitation people may experience when it comes to opening up.

READ MORE: Stories for Mental Illness Awareness Week 2019 — here’s what you had to say

These initiatives can also translate into action: on World Mental Health Day, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced an investment of nearly $40 million in mental health funding for students — more than double the previous year.

In a news release, the Ontario government said the money is intended to advance student mental health in partnership with education groups. The province also announced that it will permanently fund approximately 180 front-line mental health workers — such as social workers, psychologists and psychotherapists — in secondary schools to reduce wait times and improve access to critical services.

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AMHS said they’re seeing greater awareness surrounding mental health and as a result, investments that are reflected in the organization’s budget.

Despite layoffs and restructuring that occurred earlier this year, AMHS told Global News that its team is now expanding as the organization looks to hire even more health professionals and experts to meet the needs of the community.

With more attention and funding going toward mental health initiatives, Stuart says educating the general public is a priority.

“I think we have to understand why there’s a gap in the first place, and some of it comes down to not knowing when you do need help, not being able to interpret the symptoms that you have, thinking that they’re normal, that everybody has them but they’re actually not,” Stuart said.

READ MORE: ‘It feels like failure’ — Why Canadian workplaces should offer stress leave

With the Mental Health Commission of Canada, Stuart says education efforts are focused on centring people who have experience with mental illness.

“What we have found [is] we can intervene with the educational programs that use people who have lived experience with a mental illness to deliver the education. We call it contact-based education,” she said. “We can direct those to health-care providers, mental health-care providers, families and schools.”

According to Stuart, specialists such as mental health-care providers help normalize mental illness and inform people that they can recover, as she notes there may be a misconception among the general public that a person with mental illness may never be able to get better.

How to help take care of your mental health while in school
How to help take care of your mental health while in school

For AMHS, outreach means being available to people facing mental health challenges wherever they are. The organization is currently working on partnerships with other services and individuals in the community, such as police officers, health professionals, psychologists, and others in order to be able to adequately serve the Kingston region.

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“We’re responding to the public’s request for more services by making them more accessible by offering [mental health services] in so many different ways … whether it’s in their home, in their community, whether it’s through the walk-in services in our office,” said Victoria Wilson, team lead for crisis services at AMHS.

Wilson said AMHS can offer a variety of different supports and that those seeking help do not need to be in crisis in order to reach out. AMHS goes out into the community to meet people who require its services or simply have questions in regards to mental health, she says. The organization also looks to the community to reach out and let AMHS know if someone might be able to benefit from its services.

READ MORE: Two Kingston mental health and addictions organizations considering merger

Goodbaum says reaching out can be a big deal for someone experiencing mental illness, which is why AMHS wants to be able to meet those individuals, not just emotionally, but also in person with the support they’re seeking.

Sometimes, friends, family or even co-workers have to step up to the plate, he says, as a person who is struggling may not be able to admit they need help on their own.

According to Goodbaum, someone who checks in and is able to provide even a little extra encouragement to a person who needs help — or a push to get support — can be very meaningful during that person’s treatment and recovery.

READ MORE: ‘One size doesn’t fit all’ — Canadian campuses desperately need better mental health services

Wilson, who has worked with AMHS for eight years, echoes this point, noting that trying to create a relationship with the individuals she works with can help during their recovery process.

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It’s also important to remember that mental illness does not have one face, she says. In her work, Wilson tries “to not have judgment about a person that we see or that we come across,” adding that she and other mental health professionals “only know a portion of someone’s life story.”

“Being in the role that I’m in, I’ve had the privilege to learn a little bit about other people’s stories, but still only a portion of their story,” she says. “What I’ve learned over the years is to really reserve judgment and to get to know people beyond mental illness.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.