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Challenging stigma through storytelling

To combat stigma around mental health and addiction, we must listen and learn from those who experience it directly. The UNITE mini-documentary series at BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services is helping people do just that.
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Social stigma is a major challenge for people with substance use or mental health issues. It pushes people to the shadows, which can be detrimental for marginalized individuals. When people with mental health or addiction issues feel stigmatized, they may turn to using substances alone, thereby increasing the risk of overdose, or hide their mental health issues and needs from loved ones.

The UNITE (Understanding Each Other Together) project at BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services is combating stigma from the inside out—that is, working with patients and clients directly to help influence how the world sees individuals with mental health or substance use challenges, in order to affect change in the health care system and beyond. 

“Unfortunately, stigma and discrimination are present in health care, often resulting in barriers to services, poorer quality of care, and health outcomes,” says Justine Patterson, executive director of knowledge, innovation and partnerships at BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services. 

“As care providers, we have the opportunity to play a transformational role in combatting stigma by getting to know clients as people, beyond a diagnosis or label.” - Justine Patterson

Mini-documentary brings real experiences to life

The UNITE project features a three-part mini-documentary series based on the related stories of people living with mental health and addiction challenges. Each video is six minutes long and features the voices of patient partners Chris, Charles and L.T. bravely sharing how stigma in the healthcare system has impacted their lives, what has helped bridge these gaps, and what their hopes are for the future. The videos were animated by the Emily Carr Health Design Lab and co-created with patient partners who were included from the very beginning. 

“Working on this project has been incredible,” says Chris, one of the patient partners involved in the videos. “It’s been transformative. Having an opportunity to make a difference and to be actively involved in reducing stigma through sharing my story has been an important part of the healing journey for me.” 

Working closely with people with lived experience is a key priority for BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services. 

“We follow the ‘nothing about us without us’ approach,” says Kathryn Proudfoot, the director of patient experience and community engagement at BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services. “We understand that in order to accurately and appropriately serve the needs of patients of clients, we have to make space for their input from the very beginning. Without their bravery, collaboration, ideas and insights, this project would not have been possible.”

Taking 20 minutes out of your day to learn something new

The three UNITE anti-stigma videos are around six minutes each, making them ideal for your lunch break or a transit ride to or from work. Each one focuses on a different aspect of stigma.

The first video focuses on each person’s experience of stigma. Our storytellers describe how stigma and discrimination has impacted their health, the care they received throughout their lives, and their ability to fully reach their potential.


The second focuses on the role of healthcare providers and other support people in holding hope and healing, rather than contributing to stigma.


The third and final video in the series focuses on overcoming and healing. It highlights the strength of the storytellers – how they overcame the barriers created by stigma, what has fostered hope for them, and how they are working towards healing.


“When people come to us for care or treatment, often they are in a very vulnerable place,” says Proudfoot. 

“The efforts we make to recognize humanity and build trust with clients, however small these efforts may seem, are so important. One kind word, one act of kindness can change someone’s life.” - Kathryn Proudfoot

UNITE is a multi-year project to disrupt stigma around mental health and substance use and will continue through a number of other initiatives including facilitated dialogues with staff, clients and families to celebrate diversity and create change, community events to promote understanding, and journey mapping with clients to help foster an ongoing culture of excellence in patient experience.

SOURCE: Challenging stigma through storytelling ( )
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