Q&A with Dr Michelle Blanchard on stigma, mental health and suicide prevention communications

Posted 16th March 2022 in General SPA Knowledge Exchange 2021

Dr Michelle Blanchard is a Special Adviser at the National Mental Health Commission, leading the development of the National Stigma and Discrimination Reduction Strategy. Michelle is also an Honorary Senior Fellow at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Michelle has extensive experience within the mental health and suicide prevention sector and is recognised for her previous roles at SANE Australia, The Butterfly Foundation, and the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre.

Suicide Prevention Australia, with major partner, Life in Mind, recently hosted the Knowledge Exchange webinar series. The third webinar focused on communicating about suicide with Dr Blanchard as a guest speaker.

Dr Blanchard shares insights into her role, and perspectives on stigma, and mental health and suicide prevention communications.

Question

As part of the mental health reform agenda, the National Mental Health Commission has been tasked with developing a National Stigma and Discrimination Reduction Strategy. Tell us more about the strategy and what are the goals and aims?

Answer

The National Stigma and Discrimination Reduction Strategy aims to contribute to an Australia where stigma and discrimination on the basis of mental ill-health are no longer barriers to people living long and contributing lives. In developing the Strategy, we’re hoping to tackle public stigma (how the community feels towards those of us who are impacted by mental ill-health and distress), structural stigma and discrimination (where policies and practices lead to the unfair treatment of people who experience mental ill-health and distress) and self-stigma (how those of us who experience mental ill-health or who support someone who does, feel about ourselves).

Question

What is the role of communication in stigma reduction?

Answer

Communication in all its forms is a really important tool in reducing stigma and discrimination. The way that we talk about, represent and portray mental ill-health, distress and suicide shapes public attitudes and these public attitudes impact how people are treated by others. They are also important tools in helping to share information about the practical things we can all do to remove discriminatory barriers to people being able to participate fully in their community.

Question

How can stigma reduction impact suicide prevention?

Answer

Reducing stigma around experiences of mental ill-health, distress and suicide is critical in supporting those who might be experiencing suicidal thoughts to connect with others and to seek help. People can fear that they might be stigmatised or treated poorly if they do reach out for help. If we can eliminate stigma and discrimination, people may feel safer to share their experiences, to connect with peer and professional support and to find a way through difficult times.

Question

As part of the National Stigma Reduction Strategy, what kinds of settings are you looking at targeting actions towards?

Answer

In developing the Strategy we’ve been exploring what might be needed to reduce stigma and discrimination in the mental health system, health system, financial services, insurance and the law, education and training, employment, social services, disability, income support and housing. Reducing stigma and discrimination across these settings is important so that all of us can participate fully in the community and live a contributing life.

Question

What area of focus in stigma communication do you think the mental health and suicide prevention sector are doing well? What else can be done?

Answer

The mental health and suicide prevention sector do a great job of helping to tell the stories of those who have lived or living experience of mental ill-health, distress or suicide and in highlighting the range of professional and peer support options that can support people who might need assistance.

We need to ensure that the stories we share about people’s experiences of mental ill-health, distress or suicide, reflect the full diversity of the community including those who might have complex mental health needs or who may face additional forms of discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexuality or other parts of their identity. People need to be able to see themselves and their needs reflected in our communications.

There is also an opportunity for us all to continue to upskill ourselves and our organisations to call out stigma and discrimination when we see it, by having the language and approaches to do this effectively. Mindframe training is a great place to start.

Question

What is something those working in the sector should note or consider about the future of mental health and suicide communication? What can sector organisations do to progress stigma reduction in communications?

Answer

One of the things we are learning about stigma and discrimination is that they affect different people in different ways. The stigma around disordered eating for example, is very different to the stigma around hearing voices and that is different again to the stigma someone might face if they lose a loved one to suicide. We need to become more nuanced in our communication to tackle these various forms of stigma head on.

Question

For those working in the space of mental health and suicide, it’s important we take care of our own wellbeing. What are your top tips for others to look after their wellbeing through self-care activities?

Answer

Self-care is incredibly important for those of us working in mental health and suicide prevention. For me, it has been really important to learn to be kind to myself. Some of the things I do to stay well in doing this work includes understanding when I need to take a break and seeking peer and professional support when I need it. I also like to go to the gym and lifting heavy things!

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