Queen’s professor appointed as Member of the Order of Canada

Dr. Heather Stuart recognized for mental health stigma research with Bell Let’s Talk 

Heather Stuart is a professor at Queen’s.
Supplied by Heather Stuart

Before the Bell Let’s Talk campaign hits on Jan. 30, its Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair—and Queen’s professor—Heather Stuart joined the Order of Canada.

On  Dec. 27, Governor General Julie Payette appointed Stuart to the Order, which recognizes individuals who have made an exceptional contribution to the improvement of Canadian society in any field of research. 

A professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences, Stuart received the award for her commitment to mental health stigma research. 

“It’s really humbling, but it’s also encouraging because it tells me that [our work is] starting to make a difference,” Stuart told The Journal in an interview. “I’m not the first mental health person to have done that, but it’s the first time for somebody doing stigma work.”

In 2012, she was selected to serve a five-year term as the inaugural Bell Canada Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair at Queen’s. 

Bell Canada established Bell Let’s Talk in 2011 to raise awareness for mental health issues and advance research. While establishing the program, it funded a number of pillars, including stigma reduction. This pillar addresses the three different types of stigma: structural, public, and self.

Structural stigma describes the policies and practices that allow organizations to marginalize people with mental illnesses, whereas public stigma encompasses the way the public perceives those with a mental illness—the stereotypes, misconceptions, and prejudices that incite discrimination. Self-stigma concerns how people with mental illnesses think about themselves, based on their internalization of public stigma. 

“Basically each kind stems from the fact that people devalue those that have mental illnesses. They don’t give them policy priority, social priority,” Stuart said.

People are at the highest risk of stigmatization in the early onset of an illness. About 65 per cent of young people with a mental illness have experienced stigmatization in the last year, according to Stuart. However, this number decreases throughout older age groups. 

“Mental illnesses usually begin in young adults so that’s when the stigma is first experienced, with devastating effects. You’re a young person, and you realize that your family is withdrawing, your friends are disappearing,” Stuart said.

In 2017, Stuart was confirmed for a second term as Research Chair. 

The program is best known for its annual Bell Let’s Talk Day on Jan. 30, where Bell committed to donating five cents to mental health initiatives across Canada for every text, call, tweet, snap, and post in support of the campaign. Stuart believes it’s an effective approach because it incorporates both the awareness and action pieces of advocacy, giving people the chance to do something small that makes a big difference.

“I’m not in favour of campaigns that just raise awareness because I don’t think that they translate into behaviours. What’s different about this one is that it asked people to do something. You can see the immediate behavioral effect. You can measure it in the money that comes in. It’s translating awareness into behaviours, and we have a great metric to judge how we’re doing every year,” Stuart said.

Since 2011, Bell Let’s Talk Day has raised over $9 million for mental health initiatives across the country. Stuart has also acknowledged the concern about mental health resource availability at Queen’s, stressing the problems on campus are reflective of a greater structural issue.

“Wherever we go in the world—it doesn’t matter where, what country, what sector—there’s never enough [resources]. I don’t know that we’ll ever have enough,” Stuart said. 

In light of these limitations, she believes that universities should take a more proactive approach to student wellness.

“We could think about ways in which the university could create a culture of wellness for students, staff, and faculty so that we’re thinking about that in everything we do. Let’s look at this from the perspective of wellness, in a holistic way.”

She suggests students can make a difference by monitoring changes in behaviour from their peers, adding, “We don’t want to create mini-therapists, but we could create gatekeepers: people who know how to tell when somebody is in distress.”

On Jan. 22, Stuart will be the chair of the Let’s Talk Mental Health event on behalf of Bell Let’s Talk and the Faculty of Public Health Sciences at the University. It will be a formal opportunity for students to share what changes they believe would promote wellness across campus. 

“Before Bell, it was difficult to find anyone to put money into anything - there’s more possibilities now for people to get the funding,” said Stuart. “Bell has really changed the conversation.”

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