If someone asked you what comes to mind when you think of mental illness, what would you describe? A guy with red-rimmed eyes who sits on the curb, his head lolling to one side? The woman with the runny nose wearing dirty clothes, begging for change? Unfortunately, that’s what comes to mind for most people.
Here are some that don’t come to mind: a kid smiles through his school day with stomach clenched in rage and despair because he can’t talk about the abuse going on at home; a mother has post-partum depression so severe she sobs on the inside but can’t say anything because others see only her adorable baby; the quiet co-worker sitting next to you is so ridden with anxiety her head is screaming and she wants to disappear.
People are doing good work toward combating our stereotyped notions of what mental illness looks like. Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, the wife of the prime minister, challenges people to “talk more openly in schools, at the dinner table, among friends.” Her mother-in-law Margaret Trudeau travels the country talking about her struggle with bipolar disorder and urging the government to take action on this serious health issue.
Athletes like Olympians Clara Hughes and Silken Laumann, NHL stars like Theo Fleury and Sheldon Kennedy, have spoken openly, as have celebrities like Lena Dunham, Drew Barrymore, J.K. Rowling among many others.
I’m glad they are speaking out about the various forms of mental illness they’ve experienced: depression, anxiety and panic disorders, PTSD, forms of bipolar illness, schizophrenia, eating disorders, substance abuse and addiction. They seek to “normalize” mental illness as much as cancer or diabetes is in the hopes of getting rid of the stigma, so we ordinary people will divulge our struggles and be motivated to get help.
But talk is difficult when the stigma is still there. I’ve heard someone jokingly look for an excuse not to fulfil an obligation: “I’ll tell them I’m bipolar and off my meds.” Laughs around the table. Tell someone you have bipolar and check out this reaction: “I’m sorry for your problems.” As if you’ve done something you need to make amends for. Or this one: “I feel crappy. I must have it too.” Comparing mental illness to a routine bad day minimizes the disease, making the person feel shamed, as though they’re just “complaining” and shouldn’t have mentioned it.
As well-meaning and as important as their work is, celebrities are not “normal” in the sense of our everyday worlds. They are beautiful, wealthy and extremely talented. While I acknowledge their unquestionable illnesses, they have access to the best help and medication money can buy, without delay
I waited a year-and-a-half for a referral to a psychiatrist. For many who suffer some form of mental illness, that amount of time could be fatal. It certainly would be in the case of cancer. If you do not believe mental illness is fatal, witness the many suicides, and murder-suicides that happen across the country. The most recent was an Afghan veteran and his family in Nova Scotia. According to sources, he was not getting the help he needed. And northern communities could well declare a state of emergency with their rates of indigenous youth suicide.
Psychiatrists are covered by medicare, but wait times are long. What about psychologists and other therapists — it’s much easier to get an appointment with them, isn’t it? At $200 an hour and up, the cost is out of reach. At the start of therapy, appointments are often weekly or twice a month at the least in the beginning, and once per month for maintenance as time goes by. The cost can rise to $6,000 a year. Insurance plans vary, but they tend to cover about $400 per calendar year. That’s two appointments — not even enough to articulate a problem and begin to sort out solutions.
According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (camh.ca), in any given year one out of five Canadians experiences a mental health or addiction problem. By the time they reach 40 years of age, one in two have or have had a mental health illness. As well, mental illness is a leading cause of disability in Canada. People with mental illness and addictions are more likely to die prematurely than the general population. Mental illness can cut 10 to 20 years from a person’s life expectancy.
I know of people who have waited in emergency for hours because they feel suicidal, only to be sent home because there isn’t room, or the resources aren’t available. There’s always someone with an obvious injury who gets priority, though the wounds of the mentally ill patient are no less severe.
There are no pink campaigns for mental illness, no door-to-door fund-raising blitzes or CFL weekends where the players wear . . . what? Blue? Black?
Efforts are growing to create awareness and work toward support for mental illness. Mendthemind.ca seeks to “shatter the stigma.” Defeatdepression.ca has ideas for awareness campaigns. The Mood Disorders Society of Canada is running an “Elephant in the room anti-stigma” campaign. Notmyselftoday.ca is trying to improve mental health in the workplace. These are just a few of many organizations that can be found by searching online.
The Canadian Alliance on Mental Health and Mental Illness says in the advocacy section on its website: “In its role as advocate, CAMIMH believes now is the time for the federal government, in strategic collaboration with the provinces and territories and as part of a negotiated First Ministers’ health accord, to significantly accelerate investment in mental health programs and services.”
We need to help, and the most important place to start is at home, in the workplace, and at school. Beginning to talk about mental illness means someone won’t have to make the excuse that you “have a cold” when the reality is that depression and anxiety are too overwhelming to cope with a room full of people and you just need to stay home where it’s quiet.