Speaking Up on Mental Health

Published: October 10, 2012

Following Mental Health Awareness Week, it’s critical that Canadians continue to raise awareness, break down stigma, and discuss how to improve treatment for those who suffer from mental illness.

“At times I could barely get moving through the day, and found talking to anyone difficult… I was paralyzed by self-doubt, cold sweats, and no reassurances of friends and family could convince me that I had much self-worth or hope for the future.”

Those who have suffered from a mental illness or who have shared the experience of it with a friend or family member know how difficult it is for a sufferer to make an admission like the one above. Despite the fact that 20 per cent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime, it is still a difficult subject for many people to talk about.

When my friend and colleague Bob Rae wrote the above words about his experience, it was a courageous step forward in furthering a national discussion about mental health that is long overdue in Canada.

Mental illness affects people of all ages, educational levels, incomes, and cultures. Winston Churchill called it the “black dog,” his term for the depression that afflicted him throughout his life. Abraham Lincoln suffered periods of severe and debilitating “melancholy” – what would today be called clinical depression.

In Canada, eight per cent of adults will experience a major depression in their lifetime, and 12 per cent will experience some form of anxiety disorder. Twenty per cent of these sufferers will have a substance-abuse problem. Severe mental illness is a major contributor to homelessness, and the cost of mental illness to our economy has been estimated at $50 billion per year. Most tragic of all, suicide accounts for 24 per cent of deaths among 15-24 year olds.

Despite these statistics, only one-third of those in need of mental-health services will access them, and 71 per cent of family physicians in Ontario ranked access to psychiatrists as fair to poor. While mental illnesses constitute more than 15 per cent of the burden of disease in Canada, they receive only seven per cent of health-care dollars.

Fortunately, mental-health issues have increasingly become part of the national consciousness. The work of leaders like Bob Rae and retired Lieutenant-General now Senator Roméo Dallaire, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after witnessing the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, has helped bring this topic to the fore. In addition, our country’s experience in Afghanistan has made it clear that more must be done to address mental-health issues.

With Canada’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan coming to a close, as many as 13 per cent of Canadian Forces personnel are returning with some form of operational stress injury (OSI), according to one Department of Defence report (some would argue that the numbers are even higher). These can include PTSD, depression, problems with addiction, and the list goes on.

Given the extraordinary debt owed to Canada’s men and women in uniform, raising awareness about the need for expanded mental-health treatment is of the utmost importance. In the case of PTSD, symptoms can appear months or years after military service, and sufferers may not realize they have an OSI until the symptoms have become severe.

These invisible wounds can compromise a soldier or veteran’s personal, work, and family life, and far too often they suffer in silence.

Thankfully, at places like the University of British Columbia’s Veteran’s Transition Program, which I was fortunate to visit in September, remarkable progress is being made in learning how to treat soldiers and vets suffering from these injuries. Funded by the Royal Canadian Legion, True Patriot Love, and Wounded Warriors foundations and headed by UBC’s Marvin Westwood, the program addresses the complexity of trauma that our soldiers have experienced, and attempts to bridge their transition from conflict zones to everyday society.

However, much more needs to be done – not just for the Canadian Forces, but for all Canadians who have suffered from a mental illness.

National leaders and people in positions of authority need to do three things:

First, they must continue to raise awareness about the facts of mental illness in our society. Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week, sponsored by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health. These sorts of events offer an excellent opportunity for public figures, community leaders, members of the Canadian Forces, and many others to share their stories of dealing with a mental-health issue to build awareness and understanding of the problem.

Second, the stigmas surrounding mental illnesses must be broken down. Sufferers need to know that acknowledging a mental-health issue and asking for help will be applauded, and that there will be people around them in their family, community, clinics, all the way up to Parliament and provincial legislatures who will stand with them and support them. Stigma is a cultural issue and requires a culture shift.

Finally, we must engage in a national dialogue about how to expand access to treatment and improve the services offered to those in need, especially to groups at a higher risk, like youth and the Canadian Forces. Again, this is a discussion that is long overdue.

Each one of us has either experienced a mental-health issue or knows someone who has. It may be a family member, a friend, a colleague, or someone we have passed by many times who is living on the street. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to bring this issue to the forefront of our national dialogue.

John McKay is the Liberal Member of Parliament for Scarborough-Guildwood, and the Critic for Defence for the Liberal Party of Canada.