Jennifer McLaughlin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
One in four Canadians will suffer from mental illness in their lifetime. Mental Illness Awareness Week, Oct. 3 to 9, offers an opportunity to better understand what mental illness looks like and what needs to be done to help those living with it.
“(Mental illness) is an actual health care condition. It’s an illness, so we need to talk about it just like we talk about cancer. It’s an actual biophysical illness,” explained Rebecca Shields, Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) York Region and South Simcoe Branch.
Mental Health Week, which takes place in May, promotes healthy living from a mental health perspective, while Mental Illness Awareness Week encourages us to think about the impacts of mental illness on those affected by it, and how to support them with access to diagnosis, care, and treatment.
Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding mental illness limits the resources and investments necessary to provide this critical support.
Shields suggested that the source of the stigma is two-fold.
Firstly, there’s a long-held misconception that those suffering from anxiety and depression are weak and need to “tough it out.”
Secondly, the media has traditionally linked severe mental illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia to adverse and risky social behaviour. For this reason, we tend to overlook the impact of these illnesses on those who suffer from them and instead jump to the conclusion that they are simply bad people.
The reality is that these individuals and typically very isolated and ill, and without treatment, it’s difficult for them to live. It’s also necessary to educate people that, like diabetes and cancer, mental illness can range in severity.
“With appropriate treatment and care, people can live full and persistent lives,” Shields said. “We need to treat it with respect. It’s an illness, not a weakness.”
With the ongoing effort to improve awareness about mental illness, Shields pointed out that society has made strides.
The added stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a much broader understanding that everyone can be affected by mental illness.
“I think its tremendous to remove the ‘othering’” and the attitude that mental illness only happens to other, far different people, explained Shields. “It’s the woman who drops her kids off to school when I drop my kids off to school.”
An increasing number of celebrities and public figures opening up about living with mental illness helps to eliminate the “othering” mindset. It proves and offers reassurance that it is possible to live a fulfilled life despite the challenges of mental illness.
Shields offered the example of Beth Beattie, a successful lawyer and now senior counsel for the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General, who decided to share her struggles with bipolar disorder with her colleagues after several years.
The feeling of immense relief at not having to try to hide her condition any longer inspired her to advocate for an open-minded and proactive approach to mental illness.
The expanding dialogue around mental illness creates a necessary awareness that mental illness issues are real.
“The consequences of untreated illness – whether cancer or mental illness – is that it gets worse over time as long as you don’t treat it,” said Shields.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic created a broader understanding of the condition, it forced a massive shift in CMHA’s operations.
There was a need to support thousands of people suddenly at home, often isolated and many struggling with depression and anxiety.
At the same time, individuals suffering from more severe and persistent conditions, suddenly left without vital social support, were in crisis. Many individuals delayed care for fear of contracting COVID-19.
The opioid addiction crisis is further compounding the severity of the situation.
The result has been a substantive increase in the number of people calling crisis helplines or visiting the overcrowded hospital emergency departments.
This crisis has forced CMHA and their partners to think about how to help the most acute people stabilize and get connected to care when there’s a lack of capacity across a strained health care system.
Despite the increased challenges, Shields commends both CMHA staff and the staff of their community partners for “working harder than they ever have despite burnout to reach clients and families and to make themselves available.”
Focusing on and optimizing the limited capacity to help those in need of support is critical. CMHA and their community partners are determined to do this despite the limited resources available.
Visit cmha-yr.on.ca for information.