I have a hard time peeling myself away from the book I am reading to focus on this column. The book is called From the Ashes, and it is written by Jesse Thistle, presently an assistant professor of Metis Studies at York University in Toronto. The path that led him to where he is today though… OK, I will not spoil it for you. I am three quarters done and have shaken my head and winced more times than I could count since I started reading it. I had heard him sharing his story on the radio a couple of years ago while driving with my eldest to Harper Mountain. I wished then he’d write about it. He did.
The story made my son and I quiet. We listened and talked about it for days. Sobering is barely the word to characterize the after-feeling. Among countless heartbreaking events of his life, Mr. Thistle was incarcerated and that’s where his story, many other people’s stories and a recent social campaign intersect.
You may have come across that social media campaign. Heck, if you are on social media at all, unless you did not show up to check it on January 29th, there was no way to avoid it. So that’s great, you may say, that’s the day when we step outside of the comfort zone and talk about mental health beyond whispers to a friend in a coffee shop or writing things down in a journal.
Talk is not free either. For every social media mention with #BellLetsTalk, which arguably raises awareness about mental health, five cents in donated to the cause. Great, right?
I had happened upon an article about Ontario prisons and Bell which painted a picture I had a hard time placing next to the enthusiastic campaign still unfolding on social media. You can read the article here. In short, because of a well-placed Bell contract, inmates in Ontario prisons, many of whom have a ‘mental alert’ on their file as the article notes, may only call landlines (collect call) and the calls are way pricier than you or I pay. They cannot exactly subscribe to the BellLetsTalk sentiment any time soon, that’s for sure.
Digging further I found other stories that point to some discrepancies – and that’s a euphemism. Bell employees complaining of such pressure to make sales that many end up with serious health issues and what is now known among doctors as ‘The Bell Effect.’ They too cannot quite get giddy about the talk campaign; for those that are still employed, there could be repercussions.
Further yet, money raised through campaigns such as this can bring some good tax returns and increase company profits. Which they do.
But OK, let’s play the devil’s advocate. Not all is so dark and gloomy, is it? The above and more similar issues can be rectified and people will see better days, right? When it’s all said and done, we can at least look at the wealth of awareness the campaign leaves in its wake. People talk about mental health and the social media is literally flooded. For a day. How about the rest of the time?
Stats don’t lie, and they paint a picture that’s far from what we hope to see, more so after such loud campaigns. In British Columbia, half of us will develop some form of mental illness before the age of 40. Approximately 17 percent or 800,000 are experiencing mental illness or a substance abuse issue (they often go hand in hand) according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. Two thirds of all the children and youth needing mental health treatment in B.C. do not receive it. That could be correlated to mental illness in the family, or poverty, or, unfortunately, both. After all, the recent report card on children poverty does not look much better than previous years. One in five children in B.C. lives in poverty. For single parents, that stat becomes one in two.
Here’s another one: in B.C. suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens between 15 and 24 years of age. Four times higher rates in males than females. Do we talk enough about that and once we do, what actions are being taken to protect those at risk and help them find a better grip to keep on going and thriving?
Mental health care is not freely available in Canada. To put it bluntly, you have to do quite well to afford mental health treatments when needed, either through an extended healthcare plan or by paying out of pocket. Are we talking enough about that? Enough so that the system is changed to make diagnosis and treatment available as needed?
Hashtags are nice and bouncy. They drag many of us into that river of well-wishers, creating the high of what looks like positive action leading to something (what would that be?). That’s all good, but can we keep talking about mental health and make it better for those who need it most?