Mental health advocate slated to speak with Yukon students

A national mental health expert is in Whitehorse this week to talk to students about the stigma that surrounds people with mental illnesses.

A national mental health expert is in Whitehorse this week to talk to students about the stigma that surrounds people with mental illnesses.

Micheal Pietrus, director of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, will be the keynote speaker on June 9 at the Mental Health Association of Yukon’s barbecue fundraiser. That same day he’ll be speaking to students at Porter Creek High School about young people’s experience with stigma.

He wants to speak to youth who might be experiencing mental illness to assure them that help is available. He also wants to encourage everyone to be supportive of people who might be struggling.

“What I’m hoping is that I get people talking about it and beginning to reconsider how they look at mental illness,” he said.

“Part of breaking down the stigma barrier is getting people talking about it and normalizing it.”

It’s important that students learn about some of the myths surrounding mental illness so they can support friends or family members who might be suffering instead of falling for stereotypes, he said.

According to Pietrus, about 70 per cent of people who report having mental health problems say the symptoms started in their teen years.

That means young people need to feel comfortable stepping forward and asking for help if they start feeling unwell.

But when one of the most common stigmas around mental illness is the false belief that the person is “damaged goods” or weak and without hope, taking that step can be difficult, he said.

Teens are particularly sensitive to that kind of stigma, especially when it is coming from their family or friends.

“They take it more personally because they’re experiencing it for the first time,” Pietrus said.

“They haven’t developed the coping mechanisms or strategies that, say, perhaps somebody who has been dealing with it for a number of years has developed.”

Stigma for young people with mental illnesses can translate into more bullying at school and being ostracized from their friends, he said.

“They begin to see themselves in that negative way and therefore they become withdrawn and that is really quite potentially harmful to them.”

The mental health commission is funded by Health Canada. It has worked on Canada’s national mental health strategy and is responsible for helping governments and community organizations improve the mental health system.

The commission has studied dozens of programs aimed at reducing stigma and dispelling myths about mental illness to try to determine which programs work well. That research led to the creation of the Headstrong program.

In 2014 the commission helped run “regional summits” in seven provinces and the Northwest Territories as part of the program.

High school students and teachers learn about mental health and are trained at these summits to go back to their schools to set up programs.

They learn how to run assemblies, hold competitions and find public speakers, all aimed at reducing stigma and stereotypes around mental health.

“When we begin to see that people can get better and do get better it really begins to change our perception,” Pietrus said.

The Headstrong program worked with more than 400 high schools and an estimated 186,000 high school students eventually took part in the program, he said.

The commission tries to measure its success when it comes to changing people’s minds.

Participants at the summits are asked to take a survey before they take part in the program, after the events and then again three months later.

The survey has questions like: “Would you be friends with somebody who had a mental illness?” or “Would you date somebody who had a mental illness?”

The testing found upwards of a 15 to 20 per cent improvement in people’s answers after the summits, according to Pietrus.

Pietrus said he would love to be able to bring the program to Yukon schools and is hoping to meet with educators and public officials when he is here.

Contact Ashley Joannou at