Weekly Column: It Is High Time We End Mental Health Stigma

By | February 15, 2019

Originally published as a column on CFJC Today Kamloops and Armchair Mayor News on February 11, 2019. 

It’s almost a year since I encountered human pain in a way that I never thought I would and there is rarely a day I do not think of it, more so because it happened in the place I go for mornings hikes with the dog. A young person had decided to end their life and that grey, cloudy morning was draped in heartbreaking, haunting silence. It is impossible to imagine the mental pain of making that decision, and impossible to imagine the pain of loved ones left behind.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t an isolated incident. A couple of months later, a second makeshift memorial appeared in the park underneath the bridge. There are flowers and messages appearing regularly; the pain is present every second of every day. The air is heavy as you walk by. Two of so many.

In the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) recently released report on suicide prevention, suicide was deemed one of the top 10 causes of death in Canada. Among people between 15 and 24, suicide is the second leading cause of death after car accidents. Male suicide accounts for 70 percent among youth 15 to 19 years old.

It is estimated that a suicide affects up to 10 people. I’d say way more than that. For every death by suicide, there are up to 30 attempts, according to the Public Agency of Canada. Those have an awful impact too. There are approximately 4,000 deaths by suicide per year in Canada and if that’s not enough reason to make it a loud public conversation, then the fact that 90 percent of people who die by suicide were experiencing mental health issues or illness should take us there.

Sure we talk about mental health more than we used to; as we should, but still not enough, given that there are approximately 6.7 million Canadians living with mental illness. Also, some mental health issues are easier to bring up than others: think eating disorders versus OCD, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. That’s a big argument for why mental health needs proper attention, money allocated to it and a whole lot of education on the topic for us all. It’s up to all of us to remove the stigma.

Between 50 to 70 percent of mental health issues usually appear before the age of 18, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). By the age of 40 approximately half of all Canadians will have or have had a mental illness, according to the same organization. When something is so widespread, it touches everyone in the end, directly or indirectly.  

If you talk to people whose family members of friends were or are affected by mental health issues, you will hear that hospital stays are too short and prescribed drugs are too expensive to buy. A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2018 revealed that many Canadians have to choose between affording the necessities of life and prescribed medication. Drugs for mental health conditions were the most commonly reported drug that was left out due to financial constraints. At the same time, psychiatric drugs are being prescribed and used in Canada more than ever.

Now imagine having proper funding for education, starting with our very young, some of whom have a parent or family member suffering from mental illness: imagine learning from early on how to cope with emotions and what mental health is about, and learning what it means when a loved one suffers from mental illness.

Only approximately 1 in 5 Canadian children who need mental health care receive that and that translates into 10 to 20 percent of youth being affected by a mental illness or disorder. Some will get to the point where they cannot see any reason to keep going. Imagine adequate funding for medical visits with specialists who can intervene from the very first signs of mental illness not necessarily with medication only but with counselling and support groups and regular check-up visits.

On January 30, the Bell Let’s Talk Day aimed yet again to normalize the conversation about mental health in Canada (some decry it as corporate marketing but I am looking at the means to achieve something here, and for that it was good.) That’s one day out of 365 days. Even a whole week or month will not do. This is an everyday conversation and reality. A hashtag can spread the message on social media, but direct face to face interactions is what matters the most. Human presence.

Mental illness is present every day and it relentlessly claims its heavy toll of emotional turmoil, severe family and social disruptions, and financial burdens. This is everyone’s concern. At the simplest level, it starts with caring. Sometimes that means not avoiding a conversation, or a person, and starting with the simplest question, ‘How are you?’ hoping that people will have the courage and trust to say ‘Not great…’ Because no one should be in this alone and too many people are.

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