Oppression and Stigma Module

Oppression and Stigma Module

Green Chinese takeaway boxModule Takeaways

  • Understand the complex societal, professional, personal and cultural ways in which stigma regarding mental health (media, expert knowledge, individual identity) is perpetuated
  • Understand systematic discrimination, racism, poverty, ageism, and other forms of marginalization and oppression as they relate to mental health
  • Appreciate the changes to identity that arise from engagement with the mental health system
  • Acknowledge how labelling can stigmatize and oppress marginalized groups and survivors of trauma

Three green gears working togetherModule Components

Green measuring tapeModule Assessment

As a Canadian concerned about mental health, using an artefact that they have examined to develop their idea, have your students write a 250-word letter to a mental health organization or an elected official regarding stigma and oppression that could be addressed by a policy initiative.

Their letter should be addressed to one of the following organizations or people:

  • Federal or Provincial Minister of Health
  • Canadian Mental Health Association
  • ArtBeat (Winnipeg)

Green hand-held magnifying glassModule Learning Lens

In the 18th century, Londoners used to travel to “Bedlam” – a vast institution for the mad on the outskirts of the city – for the holiday entertainment of watching the patients. Today, the Downtown East Side of Vancouver is regarded by some as a tourist destination, where visitors to the city can view the “street animals”, as one recounted on a recent web-posting that blamed the closure of large psychiatric hospitals for Canada’s poorest postal code. Such public showcasing of people who challenge societal notions of “normal” demonstrates the profound attitudinal barriers to social inclusion faced by people with mental health difficulties. They describe stigma as another whole aspect of their suffering, saying that deeply internalized shame can deter them from seeking help. 

Stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace or inferiority associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person, and it is widely understood that many people in Canada hold negative attitudes toward mental health difficulties. Discrimination is stigma in action, the unfair treatment and oppression of a person or group on the basis of prejudice. Our community experts noted the distinction between these two terms, raising concerns that the concept of stigma is not broad enough to encompass the marginalization that they experience. While a discussion focused on stigma usually acknowledges discrimination due to stereotyping, it remains apolitical and limits the agenda for systemic change. We found that academics agree, arguing that a focus on micro-level interpersonal actions masks social and economic marginalization and obscures unfair treatment and discrimination. In addition, stigma locates root causes in the service user rather than the unjust systems that exclude them. Certainly, the 1940’s radio plays presented in this module – some of Canada’s first efforts in a public mental health education – trace troubling behaviours to dysfunctional families and personal problems rather than the legacies of war or the Great Depression.

How can we work to remedy this problem? Researchers suggest pulling the concept of oppression into the center of the picture. Oppression highlights the role of societal and structural exclusion, unmasks systemic racism and sanism within the mental health system, and accounts for persisting inequities in service provision and opportunities for people with mental health difficulties. It recasts the mental health dialogue as a conversation about civil and human rights and reframes stigma as a form of social, cultural and economic oppression. Placed in a human rights paradigm, the source of the problem shifts from individuals with mental health difficulties to persistent systemic power imbalances and interlocking oppressions. This conception makes space for structural initiatives with a deeper impact such as strategies to enhance work opportunities, political advocacy to address funding inequities, improved legal protection for individuals with mental health difficulties, and new practice models that promote shared decision making and collaborative practice. It also helps people with lived experience of mental health grab hold of a positive sense of self, then contribute to fighting stigma and discrimination. In this module we offer two key sets of components that speak directly to these issues. The story of Toronto writer and community worker Pat Capponi is an avenue to help future mental health practitioners understand the scope and impact of oppression. Two powerful poems by youth who identify as female and racialized open up understandings of the personal impacts of intersecting oppressions of racism and sanism. Educators and learners should use Mad School’s Anti-Oppression Statement alongside unit materials.