Mental Health Mentality: A Plea to Stop the Stigma | By Patrick Nguyen

When someone is affected by physical illness, it gives us something tangible to latch on to. We are able to feel the broken bones, we are able to touch the blood, we are able to hear the dry coughs. When someone is affected by mental illness, it does not give us anything. We cannot feel the humiliation, we cannot touch the need to hide from the world, we cannot hear the feeling of failure.

When someone is affected by physical illness, support groups form out of thin air, awareness campaigns sprout and take over TV and those affected are heralded as brave, strong and unwavering under the immense struggle. When someone is affected by mental illness, natural support systems like friendships and family members slowly fade away, political policies penalize the ill and those affected are labeled as crazy, weak and hungry for attention due to something that is perceived as their own fault.

Society focuses so much on the outside that we often forget about the inside.

The Numbers

We know that approximately seven million Canadians – that is 20% of our nation’s population – live with a mental illness. We know that 8% of all adults will experience major depression at some point in their lives. We know that suicide accounts for 24% of all deaths among 15 to 24-year-olds and 16% among 25 to 44-year-olds. These are the facts. This is what we know.

These numbers show how much of our population requires help and it especially shows how bad of a job our society has done to give that help. Even here in Canada, a country renown for its free and universal healthcare system, mental health is not covered to the same standard as physical health. The Alberta Health Care Insurance Plan does not cover psychologists or other non-physician mental health therapists. They do cover psychiatrists, who are allowed to prescribe drugs to help minimize and control mental illness, but psychologists, those who are trained to assess, diagnose and treat mental health problems and disorders, remain painfully unfunded by the government.

The Canadian Mental Health Association recognizes this, suggesting to instead find treatment using work-related insurance plans. However, if a job insurance plan is not within reach of someone with mental illness, they are left the choice of either seeking the care of a psychiatrist – needing to wait weeks or even months for an appointment – or finding therapy with a psychologist, which requires the patient to pay out of pocket.

The Spread

It is not just the individual that suffers when mental illness takes over a life. It affects families that strain to understand something they know so little about. It affects friendships that struggle to survive because the bridges of communication become weaker and weaker. It affects the workplace that tries and fails to provide its employees with a positive work environment.

Every week, half a million Canadians miss work due to mental health related problems. Every year, it is estimated that mental illness costs the economy 50 billion dollars. The emotional and economical need for relief is apparent, so why is so little being done?

According to Michael Kirby, the founding chairman of Partners for Mental Health, mental health issues almost always begin young: “before the age of 24 … If you get them early, you avoid a lifetime of problems and costs”. The prospect of protecting our future economy and citizens from mental health issues should be enticing to governments that are cost-aware (such as Canada), yet none of that has yet come to fruition.

The gap between what is needed and what is received still remains staggering.

The Stigma

A man goes to see a doctor and says, “Doc, I’m depressed. Simply, I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I feel down and irritable most days. I just can’t feel ‘happy’ even when people try to cheer me up.”

The doctor says, “I’ve got the perfect fix for you! In town tonight is the great clown Pagliacci. He’s hysterically funny and will make you laugh until you cry. You will experience a joy that is unprecedented.” The man hears this then bursts into tears. The doctor, confused, asks him why.

“Doc, I am Pagliacci.”

How often does a person with depression get told to look at the bright side? How often does a person suffering from bipolar disorder get called crazy? How often does a person afflicted with anorexia get told just eat something? It is no wonder that almost half of all people that have suffered from depression or anxiety did not seek help.

How can we look at all of this and say that proper help is being given to potential patients in need? We look to the Canadian Forces, a line of work that has its employees “surrounded by death, carnage, things you can’t even fathom,” said a soldier on a base in Manitoba. This soldier called the mental healthcare provided for himself and fellow soldiers as “a nightmare”, saying that he has been without a psychologist for over 3 months, and has even attempted suicide in that timeframe.

Canadian Forces members have arguably the highest of high-stress jobs in the nation, yet the government expects them to deal with their issues on their own. How can anyone in this country expect others to properly understand the seriousness of their condition when those in the line of fire can not expect that of their employers? The notion that mental health sits at a rung below physical health is a ridiculous one that makes this country and the society that exists within it worse. By showing a complete lack of compassion and coverage for the mentally ill, the government is perpetuating the stigma that mental health does not affect people like physical health does, which is categorically untrue.

By classifying those affected by mental illness into a group that receives no help, a message is being sent that it is expected that those with such illnesses should deal with their issues on their own. It is painting a picture of self-failure, something that should not be covered by general healthcare because it is something that is not widespread, when the fact of the matter is that it is exactly the opposite. Mental health affects Canadians just as much as physical health does, and it is time for the government and our citizens to recognize that.

It is difficult for people that have never experienced mental health issues to understand the trials and tribulations that those affected go through. That group includes me. I do not completely understand the full effects of mental illness and I do not think that I will ever be able to unless I am put into the shoes of those who suffer from it every day. However, I am putting in a great deal of effort to understand, and that is at least a start.

It’s time for Canada to do the same.


Photo courtesy of  Wanderer Online Photographer Vivian Kwan.

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