Big Ideas + Actions

How a Hospital Smashes HIV Stigma

April 14, 2021
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One in five people living with HIV are denied health services because of stigma and discrimination. We still have work to do.

Stigma is pervasive and widespread.

Casey House is a hospital founded on activism that continues to embrace its roots to make the humanity of people more visible than their HIV. Casey House’s #smashstigma campaigns bring attention to misinformation about HIV and the impact it has on those who live with it. Each campaign is grounded in data, which quantifies the scale of what people living with HIV know all too well—that stigma is pervasive and widespread.

June’s HIV+ Eatery

Would you eat a meal prepared by someone living with HIV? This was the challenge Casey House issued with June’s HIV+ Eatery, after 53% of Canadians said they would not knowingly eat a meal prepared by someone who is HIV+.

To debunk the myth that HIV can be transmitted through food, Casey House created the world’s first HIV+ restaurant in 2017: a three-night pop-up where people living with HIV prepared the meals. Celebrity chef Matt Basile and his Fidel Gastro’s team provided the expertise to pull off a dining experience to remember. The meal was served family style, creating an intimate setting where guests could engage in conversation and unite against stigma.

Operating under the slogan “Break Bread, Smash Stigma,” the restaurant garnered worldwide attention. The engaging and almost humorous advertising sparked curiosity while forcing people to think about stigma. This included pictures of the chefs in confident poses wearing aprons with slogans such as “Kiss the HIV+ Cook” and “I got HIV from eating pasta...Said no one ever.”

The visuals forced the public to think critically about their perceptions connecting HIV-positive people and food.

“I’ve been living with HIV for over 25 years and unfortunately, like all people living with HIV, I’m also a bit of an expert at living with HIV stigma. Ending HIV stigma in Canada is going to be one heck of a battle, but I’m encouraged by the success of the Smash Stigma campaign, and by other community-led approaches championed by people living with HIV, in helping to put an end to this fight.”

—James Watson, Host of pozcast and National and Ontario Coordinator for the HIV Stigma Index in Canada

The 14 peer chefs’ impact was incredible. The group included experienced activists and generated brand new ones, some of whom were Casey House clients. The response from both their networks and strangers was supportive and often thankful. All agreed the experience of participating was transformative; the group bonded and has remained connected years later.

The response

June’s HIV+ Eatery and #smashstigma were envisioned in collaboration with one of Canada’s top creative agencies, Bensimon Byrne and its affiliates Narrative and OneMethod. The first #Smashstigma campaign received terrific media coverage, generating over 926 million social media impressions and more than 150 news stories worldwide, igniting discussion and allowing Casey House to engage many people in conversations about stigma. Over 730,000 Canadians were educated on social media during that first campaign.

The comments on social media were frequently uninformed, ranging from “…what about the other diseases people with HIV are prone to?” to sometimes nasty comments like, “Look I'm sorry about the stigma but come on, this is creepy.” Or “Someone cuts their finger at work and you get an epidemic... lovely. Hard pass on this one.” These comments and interactions with the general public provided plenty of opportunity for education and conversation. Casey House’s replies were thoughtful and educational: “Eric, we hear your concerns, and are addressing them because this is the stigma we are trying to smash…” Frequently, members of the public responded to negative comments, even before Casey House had a chance to, with words to educate, cajole or shame naysayers.

The experience was filmed and turned into June’s, a short documentary by Academy Award nominated director Hubert Davis. The film captures the event’s activities, some of the previously mentioned comments and reactions, and features the personal stories of the chefs who boldly stepped out to break the stigmas that surround them daily. In 2020, Casey House turned June’s HIV+ Eatery from a campaign to an annual multi-day fundraising event, which takes place the first week of March. Many of the chefs return year after year.

Subsequent #Smashstigma projects

Following on the success of June’s HIV+ Eatery, the next two iterations of the#smashstigma campaign addressed stigmas around touch and HIV disclosure.

In 2018, Healing House HIV+ Spa explored the power of compassion through touch and addressed HIV stigma by offering free light-touch treatments from 18 HIV+ volunteers. Over 150 visitors discovered the true power and compassion of HIV+ hands and 85% of participants felt more compassionate and/or understanding towards people living with HIV/AIDS.

The third iteration of #smashstigma in 2020 was a digital campaign focused on the power of pop culture to impact stigma after 65 million North Americans said they would rather their favourite TV character die than see them get diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. To spur conversation and pique interest, Bensimon Byrne rewrote two iconic sitcoms, Friends and The Office, and gave a lead character HIV to showcase and amplify the stigma experienced from an HIV diagnosis. Scenes included tackling disclosure in a workplace and among friends.

Alongside the two TV show episodes are six short documentaries of people living with HIV talking about their experience with stigma amongst family and friends.

The website garnered 26,452 visits during the six-week campaign with 9,937 views of Friends and The Office episodes, and 3,318 views of testimonial videos.

While 88% of survey respondents who viewed the episodes felt more empathetic to those with HIV afterwards, there is still plenty of work to do to continue to question our negative assumptions and judgement towards people living with HIV to improve life for everyone living with HIV.

Speaking up against HIV stigma can make a difference. Let’s talk, spark conversation and share information. You can do so by leaving us a comment, sharing this post to your social media pages, or by sharing an experience of your own on The Positive Effect.

This blog post was contributed by Lisa McDonald, Interim Director, Casey House Foundation.

Casey House is a sub-acute HIV specialty hospital in Toronto. Opened in 1988, Casey House has always believed that clients deserve dignity and judgment-free care. Today, Casey House provides inpatient and outpatient programming through an innovative and comprehensive approach: they provide care within the context of people’s lives, choices, communities and circumstances. Casey House is passionate about breaking down barriers and removing stigmas.

*The above header image was produced by Doublespace Photography

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