Life is unpredictable. Loved ones die, divorces rip families apart, illnesses create hardships. There are economic challenges and job anxieties, and, at the macro level, threats of global instability from terrorism to climate change. Much of this is beyond anyone's individual control.
The consequence of our sometimes difficult lives is a significant amount of psychological stress which, in many cases, metastasizes into bona fide mental illness. Some of these illnesses are genetically or biologically based and would occur even in the absence of environmental stressors. All tolled, some estimates hold that one in four Canadians will suffer a manifestation of mental illness in his or her lifetime.
It's disappointing to learn that while most Canadians have some personal connection to mental illness, either in ourselves or in someone we know, almost half of us still believe these kinds of disorders are an excuse for human weakness. That's one of the results of an Ipsos Reid survey of about 2,000 Canadians commissioned by the Canadian Medical Association.
Dr. Brian Day, the always astute CMA president, is right to say that Canadian attitudes toward mental illness are "unflattering." The disease, he says, is "the final frontier of socially acceptable discrimination."
He's right. Often, the stigma is expressed in casual references to people whom we dismiss as "crazy" or "loony." Traditionally, "crazy" referred to various kinds of psychosis, but mental illness expresses itself in many ways that don't involve delusions or violent behaviour. You can suffer a mental illness and, with treatment, remain high functioning. The lingering stigmas surrounding these issues likely reflect old-fashioned ignorance.
It could be that the high incidence of mental illness itself contributes to mistaken and stigmatizing attitudes. Because so much mental illness today does not conform to old stereotypes of the raving homeless person -- after all, successful CEOS, entertainers and sports stars have admitted to suffering mental illness -- we have a tendency to dismiss or trivialize these afflictions. And so depression or anxiety, for example, becomes an expression of weakness.
The good news is that educational efforts are ongoing. Workplaces are increasingly recognizing that mental illness -- and addictions fall into this category, by the way -- is a disease. A worker who becomes debilitated by alcoholism or depression deserves the same consideration as a worker who is struck with a physical incapacitation.
Here in Ottawa, hometown hockey hero Daniel Alfredsson has been leading an awareness campaign in honour of a family member who has suffered mental illness. Other members of the community have similarly challenged existing stigmas by speaking out about their own experiences.
The current conflict in Afghanistan has drawn attention to the unique stress disorders that can plague military personnel. Stigmas may still linger but, happily, few people today joke about or make light of the real psychological injuries to which combat veterans are vulnerable.
And it's about time.
© The Ottawa Citizen 2008
Many Still Misunderstand Mental Illness **
Improvements still need to be made in the way Canadians view mental health.
The latest Canadian Medical Association survey on the issue suggests almost half of Canadians would not tell friends or colleagues they have a family member who suffers from a mental illness.
The survey also finds 46% of Canadians think people use the term mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour, while another 27% say they'd be afraid to be around someone who is seriously mentally ill.
James Friesen, chief executive officer of Eden Health Care Services in Winkler, says he's not surprised by those statistics which prove the stigma surrounding mental illness is alive and well.
Friesen suggests Canadians need to make more of a personal effort in trying to better understand what mental illness is.
**It's About Your Community