Recently the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) posted bus shelter ads that noted two of three individuals with mental illness suffer in silence.
The stigma of mental illness is often linked to various forms of discrimination, including barriers to housing and employment opportunities. It can also lead to social isolation.
Stigma can be a major barrier to treatment itself.
There are many stereotypes about mental illness – many which are simply not true.
We have previously noted that individuals with mental illness are no more likely to be violent than anyone else in society. Studies have shown that those suffering from mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence. In the wake of our last 2008 campaign around workplace safety at CAMH, we finished with a bus shelter ad erected in conjunction with the hospital’s patient council that said as much. Our position hasn’t changed.
We heard evidence of this earlier in the year when we conducted a meeting between the North West Local Health Integration Network and many of the front line mental health workers in Thunder Bay. Receiving care “in the community” often meant housing in neighborhoods most of us would be reluctant to visit, let alone choose to live in. Workers expressed safety concerns about leaving patients in such neighborhoods with prescription pharmaceuticals that have substantial street value. The worry is these conditions are likely to make patients a target of crime.
With all this in mind, meeting Norma Gunn was a remarkable experience.
Norma is a nurse suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following an extended beating she endured at her workplace — Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences. It was the 16th such assault she had been at the receiving end of while working at the hospital and by far the worst. Her life is now one led in fear. She says when she comes to the main campus of the hospital her body shuts down and she becomes physically ill.
The good news is she is improving with professional care, but this is a long road. She tells us she couldn’t have shared her story a year ago, let alone repeat it for various media.
Many recent anti-stigma campaigns have involved individuals breaking their silence by talking about their illness. Usually these are celebrities, such as actress Glenn Close. Close has accompanied members of her extended family as they speak about their own struggles with mental illness. In Canada Olympian Clara Hughes has been called a hero for coming forward and talking about her battle with depression as part of Bell Canada’s “Let’s Talk About It” campaign.
When an Operation Maple video featuring Norma was released a few weeks ago, it generated many comments – most of them similarly applauding the nurses’ bravery in talking about her illness and the events that led up to it.
It’s hard not to watch the video without getting emotionally involved, especially when Norma talks about her children wanting their Mom back. Norma is not a stereotype. Neither is she a statistic. We have heard her story repeated numerous times and she is remarkably consistent and clear about what happened to her and the effects she has had to live with. Others have corroborated her story.
She is also willing to take a big chance that she will not suffer discrimination as a result of going public with her illness.
The problem is, she may already have: her income has dropped considerably from before the incident, having lost shifts at premium pay, including overtime. She is presently on accommodation at a satellite location where she feels safer. Up until recently she was given meaningful work to do there. Now the hospital has taken it away, likely part of their plan to return her to the main campus where they know she cannot go without incredible physical and mental stress. That is partly because they have repeatedly failed Norma.
The Operation Maple video highlights some of Ontario Shores’ failures with Norma, including the remarkable decision to simply let her drive herself home following the beating. It doesn’t note they failed to tell her the patient who beat her had returned to the hospital after having been transferred to another facility following the incident. She found out walking through the parking lot from a maintenance worker. They also told her that they would find a way to keep her from encountering the patient in the workplace. They failed at that too.
Ontario Shores thought so highly of Norma in 2010 that they gave her a GEM award. Two years later the situation looks very different following her mental and physical injuries. Is it their own attitudes towards mental health that prevents Ontario Shores from recognizing Norma’s value today?
While Norma’s video does much to overcome the stigma of mental illness, that’s not the reason she tells her story.
Ontario Shores has a big problem with workplace safety, including assaults on staff. That’s the elephant in the room that the hospital would rather not have her or us talk about. In May, June and July the centre had an average of one reported assault per day. In 2008 when we were expressing similar concerns about workplace safety at CAMH, it was a month with 23 reported assaults that became the tipping point for staff. CAMH is three times the size of Ontario Shores. Simply put – we’ve never seen anything like this before.
We have consistently laid this problem at the feet of the employer, not those in their care. While the mentally ill are no more likely to be violent than any other member in society, it doesn’t mean there aren’t those in our care who pose a risk to themselves and others. These are often factors that brought them to the hospital in the first place.
Solving Ontario Shores’ problem is not going to be easy – likely there are a variety of answers, including looking at the root environmental causes at the hospital that have spiked such aggressive behavior. Reducing such violence has been successfully done elsewhere, suggesting this is very much in the hands of the hospital.
The Ministry of Labour is conducting its own major investigation and issuing orders.
This will be a big help, but clearly there has to be more, including buy-in from the hospital’s leadership.
Ontario Shores has suggested that by telling Norma’s story we are stigmatizing the mentally ill, yet Norma’s experience suggests the opposite is true. Ontario Shores’ accusations also undermine a serious anti-stigma campaign intended to break such silence.
Bell Canada invited everyone to talk about it. There was no clause that mental health professionals experiencing their own mental illness need not be included.
In recent days we have had signals that maybe Ontario Shores is willing to address this issue with us. We can only hope.