An Interview with Amy Li & Leah Shipton of Outrun the Stigma

April 12, 2017

This article is part of a series of interviews with advocates, legal thinkers, community organizers and academics on issues related to Canadian civil liberties produced by CCLA volunteers. All responses are the interview subject’s own, and do not necessarily represent the viewpoint or positions of the CCLA.

Amy Li is a second year medical student at the University of Calgary and Leah Shipton is pursuing a Masters in Public Health at the University of Toronto. They are the co-founders and co-executive directors of Outrun the Stigma.

CCLA: Please tell us about what led to the founding of your organization, Outrun the Stigma?

AL & LS: We started Outrun the Stigma in 2013 because we noticed that most run/walk events in Calgary and across Canada, raised awareness about physical health issues (e.g. cancer, diabetes, MS) but rarely raised awareness about mental health and illness. We think that run/walk events are an incredible way to raise awareness, bring community together, and raise funds for an organization. So we decided to start Outrun the Stigma as a collaborative event between two student clubs at the University of Calgary to start to fill that gap in the run/walk culture. In 2016, after organizing and hosting three Outrun the Stigma Calgary run/walk events, we transitioned to a not-for-profit organization with the goal of expanding to universities and colleges across Canada.

CCLA: What is your organization’s mission?

AL & LS:Our mission is to reduce mental health stigma by hosting annual Outrun the Stigma run/walk events and hosting an online story sharing platform. We started in Calgary, and we are expanding throughout Canada in the coming years.

 We also fulfill this mission by:

  • Using our website and social media platforms, we encourage sharing of diverse mental health stories
  • Connecting people with mental health resources and support
  • Funding organizations that provide mental health services and programs.

CCLA: In what ways are people with mental illness discriminated against? What impact are you having in reducing the stigma and discrimination around mental health in your community? 

AL & LS:People who have a mental illness can be discriminated against in numerous settings and ways. It is also important to recognize that the type of mental illness someone has may also influence their experience of discrimination.

People with mental illness can experience interpersonal and systemic discrimination in the health care system, educational institutions, justice and correctional institutions, workplaces, among other spheres. Interpersonal discrimination refers to negative behaviors or comments regarding mental health and illness made towards someone with a mental illness in social interactions. Systemic discrimination refers policies and practices that make up the structure of institutions in society that disadvantage particular groups, in this case, people who have mental illnesses.

Outrun the Stigma focuses more on reducing interpersonal discrimination and stigma by organizing opportunities for students and community members to discuss mental health and learn about available mental health resources.

Stigma reduction is difficult to measure. Further, our organization leads one of many community and institutional efforts, so measuring the relationship between our organization’s activities and stigma reduction is difficult. However, we are currently developing a survey to measure perceived mental health stigma at each university or college campus that we expand to, with the goal of monitoring changes in stigma perceptions among students over time.

So far we have relied on qualitative feedback from participants, volunteers, and community organizations that join our events to learn how our activities impacted their lives. Our greatest impact has been at the University of Calgary, where we have been active since 2013. At the University of Calgary we see our organization part of the mental health strategy, cited by numerous students as an example of an important anti-stigma initiative happening at the school, and a way that people have learned about mental health resources.

CCLA: Why is it important to get people, namely youth and young adults, involved in advocacy regarding mental health rights, stigma and discrimination?

AL & LS: I think for Outrun the Stigma we aim to get youth and young adults involved in advocacy for mental health rights for two reasons. First, our organization is made up of young people, everyone is in university or college or is a recent graduate. Therefore, we think that our strength as an organization is promoting mental wellness and reducing mental health stigma among our peers.

The second reason is that research and academic debate in this area says that education and contact are two ways to reduce mental health stigma. The former approach is about educating the public about the causes, symptoms, and treatments of different mental illnesses. The latter approach is about increasing opportunities for the public to connect with someone who has a mental illness, either in person, online, or through other media. Based on what we have learned about this area, we also involve and encourage young people to share their mental health stories so that we can slowly chip away at the narrow stereotypes associated with mental illness.

Perhaps one more point to consider is that young people are going to be taking leadership roles in hundreds of different organizations across Canada as they move forward in their careers. We hope that young people involved in advocacy for mental health rights, stigma, and discrimination now, will continue to address these issues in their workplaces throughout their careers.

CCLA: Mental health has received increased attention over the years- with corporate and government campaigns helping to normalize the conversation. In what ways does your organization hope to grow and expand to best address the growing awareness for mental health in mainstream society?

AL & LS: It is great to see so many initiatives around mental health gaining traction over the years. At Outrun the Stigma, we are looking to get more and more youth involved in conversations that normalizes mental illness. Our goal to is achieve this by expanding our chapters to universities across the country. The purpose of setting up chapters at various universities is to provide local students the resources and support to take leadership on the important topic of mental health and make impact on their campus. Our goal for 2017 was to get a total of 3 cities involved in Outrun the Stigma initiatives. We have achieved this goal through successful expansion to Edmonton and Toronto. We are now setting the goal to expand to even more cities and universities in 2018!

CCLA:Are there any gaps in law, policy or services you find to be problematic? More specifically, is there anything more that can be done (e.g., in law, services and societal attitudes) to help end the stigma around those with mental illnesses?

AL & LS: At Outrun the Stigma, we focus on mental health and stigma reduction through a grassroots health promotion approach. We do not have enough expertise in law and policy to comment on the specific gaps in those areas.  But we do think there is always more that can be done and we definitely need a multidisciplinary approach in ending the stigma of mental illness.

CCLA: Non-profit organizations such as Outrun the Stigma play a unique role in helping to end the stigma and discrimination around mental illness. How does your role differ from other agents, such as policymakers or health professionals? Is collaboration amongst all these agents important?

AL & LS: As an advocacy-based organization, Outrun the Stigma can contribute to reducing stigma by creating opportunities for community members to unite around this common cause and by making positive conversations about mental health and illness more mainstream. We hope that our role in creating space for honest discussion of mental health and illness encourages other professionals to make mental health and illness a priority. For example, mobilizing community support for mental health and illness can be important to show policymakers that this is a priority issue that we want to see addressed in various sectors. Translating advocacy efforts to policy action is certainly an area of future development for our organization so that we can start leveraging our platform for my systemic change.