Charitable Choices: Andrea Paquette of Stigma Free Society

The Stigma Free Society aims to create awareness of the various stigmas that exist in the world, develop an understanding of the challenges that numerous people face, and encourage all people to foster acceptance of themselves and others. We spoke with Stigma Free Society President Andrea Paquette to find out more about them.

Stigma Free Society

Describe your charity/non-profit/volunteer work in a few sentences.

The Society’s mission is to create awareness of the various stigmas that exist in the world, develop an understanding of the challenges that numerous people face, and encourage all people to foster acceptance of themselves and others.

The Society delivers educational programs that encourage awareness and understanding of stigma and mental illness and provides accessible information and resources for people seeking help. The Society has been delivering mental health presentations in the community since 2010, and to students in schools since March 2016. All programs are currently being delivered virtually. The Stigma-Free Society’s website provides mental health resources developed for different audiences (youth, teachers, and parents/guardians). The Society has various social media channels that provide ongoing opportunities for peer support and participation in live events and presentations.

What problem does it aim to solve?

Initially, let’s talk about mental illness stigma. Three out of four people with a mental illness report that they have experienced stigma. Stigma is a mark of disgrace that sets a person apart. When a person is labelled by their illness, they are seen as part of a stereotyped group. Negative attitudes create prejudice, which leads to negative actions and discrimination.

Stigma brings experiences and feelings of:

– shame
– blame
– hopelessness
– distress
– misrepresentation in the media
– reluctance to seek and/or accept necessary help

Families are also affected by stigma, leading to a lack of support. For mental health professionals, stigma means that they themselves are seen as abnormal, corrupt or evil, and psychiatric treatments are often viewed with suspicion and horror. Some groups are subjected to multiple types of stigma and discrimination at the same time, such as people with an intellectual disability or those from a cultural or ethnic minority.

Stigma around mental illness exists in the world because of a lack of understanding and knowledge, but many are eager and curious to learn about mental health, especially our youth!

When did you start/join it?

The Stigma-Free Society has a true grassroots history. President Andrea Paquette created a Bipolar Babe T-shirt and website to share her personal mental health journey of living with bipolar disorder, so others did not suffer in silence like she once did. Her efforts led to meeting supportive and dedicated individuals in the local Victoria community who originally formed the Bipolar Disorder Society of British Columbia in 2010. Ms. Paquette and the board achieved registered charitable status later that year.

The Charity changed its name to the Stigma-Free Society in August 2016, to expand its mandate and include the conversation around all stigmas, with a focus on mental health. The Stigma-Free Society is committed to combating stigma of all kinds that exist in our society.

What made you want to get involved?

A bright pink t-shirt with the words “Bipolar Babe” on the front has led to a movement to stomp out stigmas that allow negative attitudes and perceptions of people with differences to persist. Andrea Paquette, 45, of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada made the t-shirt nearly a decade ago to overcome feelings of shame related to her diagnosis of bipolar disorder. The move was part of an empowerment strategy she devised after recovering from a suicide attempt. More than helping herself, the t-shirt became the impetus to start the Stigma-Free Society, a not-for-profit charitable organization dedicated to spreading acceptance, understanding and empathy and stomping out the stigmas related to mental illness, physical and developmental disabilities, race, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and religion.

What was the situation like when you started?

In 2009, when Andrea started sharing my story, it was heavily taboo to talk about mental illness or broach the topic of suicide.

When you’re in a mental health crisis, people often have this stereotype that you’re scary, violent or dangerous, like the scary guy in an asylum in a straight jacket. Mental health can affect anyone, and the past has painted a picture of misrepresentations for people who deal with a mental health condition.

How has it changed since?

There has been progress with mental health campaigns and the awareness of people’s struggles, challenges, and triumphs. The Stigma-Free Society is unique as it hosts the Virtual Stigma-Free Presentations in schools. When people’s stories of ‘lived experiences’ are shared and highlighted, then attitudes begin the shift in society as there is a face behind the illness. Additionally, the younger generation needs to be our focus so they are equipped for the challenges that they or their loved ones may face in the future.

The pandemic has affected the mental health of many people and the Stigma-Free Society’s work has gone virtual. What we do at the Stigma-Free Society is provide toolkits and offer various downloadable resources, lesson plans, and tons of information to help people stay mentally well. It’s an innovative and amazing way to create social, emotional learning for these young people, and help them manage their mental health.

What more needs to be done?

There have been strides with mental health campaigns, but there is much to do. Youth are often ill-equipped to face mental health challenges and the stigma or discrimination that is associated with conditions such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. In this time of intersecting societal crises, we are seeing great need around student mental health, and a unique opportunity to invest in mental health supports for children, youth, and teachers in communities across British Columbia through digital outreach. This is how the Stigma-Free Society helps with our newer virtual programming, the Student Mental Health Toolkit.

How can our readers help?

Sign up for our newsletter.

Take the Stigma-Free Tool and assess your own attitudes and perceptions

Write a blog for us and share your story and/or thoughts around mental health and stigma:

Create a 2-3 minute inspiring video story for our followers

Sign up and apply to be a Stigma-Free Champion

Contact us for more opportunities!

Do you have any events coming up?

The Stigma-Free Society is in the planning stages of delivering an effective and impacting awareness campaign during May Mental Health Month in 2022. The Society will host a virtual event on Facebook LIVE and have 20 interviews with people who have faced the challenges of mental illness. The SFS community is filled with people from diverse backgrounds who have lived experience and will engage in meaningful conversations about their personal stories and mental health.

The Campaign focuses on three main themes: workplace mental health, student wellbeing, and rural mental wellness. The 20 participants who take part in the Stigma- Free Faces of Mental Health Campaign will participate in virtual LIVE interviews and have 10-15 minutes to share their personal stories to shine light on how they live their best life.

There are existing mental health campaigns that promote only ‘talking’ about mental health, but the Stigma-Free Society finds greater value in engaging with the actual people who live with mental health challenges. Interviewees will speak to their wellness strategies, personal healing, and connect to the community with their own personal stories that will encourage others to reach out for help and live Stigma-Free.

Where can we follow you?

Instagram | Facebook | Twitter | LinkedIn | YouTube | Website

PAY IT FORWARD: What is an awesome local charity that you love?

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