Today is Bell Let’s Talk day, a day to raise awareness of mental illness, and those affected by it.
Let’s be clear… “mental illness” affects everyone.
No, you may not be experiencing symptoms, but it is quite likely that someone you know is. Perhaps a family member, a relative, a friend or a co-worker.
The awareness campaigns over the past year have been tremendous, but there is still a long way to go.
Perhaps you’ve seen some of the more recent tv spots, where people make comments about someone who is experiencing some sort of mental health issue. Someone makes a very stereotypical comment, and the second person merely agrees with the statement.
This is repeated twice, and then the second person makes a more positive statement about mental illness.
It’s a rather powerful message.
No doubt we’ve all done this — stood by the water cooler, or wherever, and talking about that person who’s “a little off” or “always upset”, or however we have found to describe them.
Often, our understanding — or lack thereof — of the issues facing others is based on misunderstandings shared by others. You know, comments like “he just needs to pull himself up by his bootstraps” or “pull yourself together”.
Not very helpful, really.
Perhaps you’ve seen people walking down the street, or in the mall or elsewhere, talking too themselves, or perhaps shouting at no one in particular.
Or maybe you know someone who has withdrawn from all social activity, and finds it difficult to make it to work every day.
Likely, those people are suffering from mental illness.
Sometimes, though, it isn’t quite so obvious.
There are people who make it through the day, smiling when they meet other people, engaging in conversations, and going about their regular routines. But at a tremendous cost.
For some, it take a significant effort to maintain that veneer, to keep up the appearance that “everything’s fine.”
Mental illness is often suffered in silence, privately. There is a stigma attached to mental illness.
The Canadian Medical Association reports that 27% of Canadians are fearful of being around people who suffer from serious mental illness. They also report that only 49% of Canadians said they would socialize with a friend who has a serious mental illness.
You can see why people keep things to themselves. Two out of three people suffer in silence, fearing judgment and rejection.
However… one in five Canadians will experience a form of mental illness at some point in their life, and mood and anxiety disorders impact an estimated 22% of the population.
As I mentioned, there are many people who struggle through the day, putting up a brave front, trying not to let anyone know there is a problem, which in all honesty only make the problem worse.
Depression. Anxiety. Mood disorders.
Not everyone who suffers from mental illness looks and acts like they are auditioning for a revival of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The CMA and other agencies that deal with mental health issues do rank mental illness in terms of severity, and certainly some conditions are more severe than others.
But to the person who is experiencing mental illness, there is no distinction. It’s always severe.
And it’s tough getting through the day.
For some, mornings are better.
There is a PSA spot that has a voice-over of a little child describing their father, how “…in the morning he is the best dad in the world…”, but when he comes home after work he seems very sad. The spot is illustrated with crayon drawings of dad in the morning, playing with the child, and after work, with a tear trickling down one cheek.
For others, evening is better.
The stress of making it through the day is behind them, and they can settle into their comfy, coccoon-like home environment.
There is a notion that mental illness is a disease, and often a fear that it is contagious, like ebola for the mind. But the disease model doesn’t always fit what is actually happening.
For some people, it is simply an inability to cope: with grief, with stress, or with certain situations like losing one’s job, experiencing financial difficulties, or relationship problems.
In some ways, mental health issues can be a chicken-and-egg problem; did the mental health issue lead to the problem the person is experiencing, or did the problem lead to the mental health issues?
Here’s a link to the Canadian Mental Health Association website, and a list of common myths regarding mental health. http://tinyurl.com/ouc87vm
What is clear is that the information people have about mental health isn’t always clear. For too long we’ve been exposed to Hollywood’s depiction of mental illnesses, and let’s face it: no one goes to a movie or watches a tv show expecting to see someone just sitting quietly by themselves, going about their day, doing their best to cope with a mental illness.
Our expectations have been defined by what we have seen in the media, from movies and tv shows to violent actions by a few very sick and deranged individuals. We’ve tended to paint with a very wide brush when it comes to describing and defining mental illnesses.
And, our collective sympathy for certain individuals — celebrities, especially — who have very public episodes of mental illness has waned over the past decade or so.
We’ve watched celebrities self-destruct before our eyes, and we’re quick to offer our opinions and accusations. Surely they’ve done this to themselves, right? Or perhaps not.
Can we say we would have fared any better, had we been in their place.
Sure, boatloads of money, more attention than anyone could ever dream of, and a lifestyle that is truly envious… How could this be a hardship?
For my part, I think the only real difference between celebrity’s very public breakdown and the suffering of some working-class parent is simply the level of notoriety that a celebrity has to live with.
The fact is that anyone can suffer from a mental illness. There is no immunity.
And as I mentioned at the top, mental illness affects everyone. If one in five Canadians will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetimes, and you aren’t that one-in-five, then it is very likely that you will know someone who does.
We aren’t going to eradicate mental illness, although that would be great!
What we can do, however, is educate ourselves, and those around us, so that we can reduce the stigma. We need to create a climate where those who are suffering can feel they can open up about what’s troubling them, that they aren’t ashamed to talk about it, or to seek help.
What can we do?
First, we can turn a critical eye to some of the “sources” of our information; the movies and tv shows that depict people with mental health issues as dangerous sociopaths, for instance. Yeah, it makes good tv — you just can’t picture the whole Criminal Minds team settling on a profile of “mild clinical depression” — but has it coloured our view of what mental illness really is?
Secondly, we need to begin to talk openly about mental illness, about ourselves, our families, and people we know. Not gossip about it, nor dance around the topic, but have actual conversations about how it is affecting everyone.
Once we begin to understand, we can begin to dispel the myths and the prejudices surrounding mental illness.
I’m paraphrasing a comment I read recently regarding talking about religion: We can talk quite openly about sex: sexual positions, sexual practices, sexual health, and sexually-transmitted diseases, but say one word about mental illness and you’ll clear the room.
In fact, there are so many things we discuss openly that were once taboo, that it strikes me as odd that mental illness should still be discussed in hushed tones, if at all.
Mental illness shouldn’t be the elephant in the room, and neither should raising the topic clear the room.
We should be open about discussing mental illness. It certainly will be helpful to others, and it may even be helpful for ourselves.
But… that’s just my opinion.