Toronto Star Opinion Editorial: Ending stigma of mental illness
This article appeared in the Toronto Star on December 27th, 2004.
After spending most of his twenty-sixth year in a psychiatric hospital being diagnosed and treated for bipolar disorder, "Michael's" (not his real name) next year didn't start off much better. He lost control of his business; his wife and family were keeping a safe distance; and his friends had practically disappeared. How life had changed, and continued changing for the once vibrant and successful entrepreneur.
Before his hospitalization, Michael tempered his mood swings with alcohol; after, they were stabilized with Lithium. Before, his "therapists" were his drinking buddies; after, they were dedicated psychiatrists and nurses. While putting the pieces of his life back together he realized that there was life after hospitalization.
But it wasn't always easy. The flame of his marriage extinguished, and many of his friends flickered out too. Michael began to find new avenues of support, particularly from others who also had personal experience with mental illness. He began sharing his experience with others, which led to a new, peer support program for people newly diagnosed with bipolar disorder - the first of many leadership initiatives Michael began in support of others who shared his journey.
That was almost 25 years ago - since then Michael has re-married, has two incredible kids and many successful business and volunteer endeavours. Love, family and social supports, and a caring community kept Michael from ever entering the hospital again.
Just as cancer is no longer a death sentence, a diagnosis of mental illness is no longer a life sentence.
Michael's story confirms what research tells us: early help leads to better outcomes; support from friends, family and colleagues leads to improved employment opportunities. Undetected and untreated mental illness, in economic terms alone, costs Canada over $14 billion each year. That doesn't include the costs to the health care system. And, as the brief glimpse into Michael's life reveals, it certainly doesn't account for the human cost to the people and families whose lives are so deeply affected.
Michael's story is important for another reason. For most people, his journey would not fit the stereotypical view of a person with mental illness. Unfortunately, many people falsely believe that most people with mental illness are responsible for their plights, choose to live on the streets and barely function in society. Unfortunately, this view is often reinforced by media images, but it is a far cry from the true story.
Depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder - usually lumped together as mental illness - are serious illnesses just like multiple sclerosis or diabetes. People with mental illness don't just 'feel sad' or 'have a bad day'. They have chemical imbalances in their brains, just like those with diabetes don't produce enough insulin.
So, if Michael's illness is legitimate, why is his story anonymous? Why does this successful man feel the need to hide his identity when, if he had struggled with cancer, we would applaud the courage he displayed in going through the realities of treatment?
In 1999, the US Surgeon General said, "Powerful and pervasive, stigma prevents people from acknowledging their own mental health problems, much less disclosing them to others." And unfortunately, that's where we still are in 2004.
Stigma is one of the biggest barriers to people seeking the treatment that they need: two-thirds of people who require treatment for a mental illness don't seek help. They either lack understanding of the symptoms or fear the stigma associated with the illness and its treatments.
In the 21st century, we marvel at how far we've come as a society - we have phones that take pictures and people carry the contents of their computer hard drive on a pocket-sized memory stick. But when it comes to people with mental illness, society's attitudes and behaviours are stuck in the distant past.
As representatives of the mental health field, we look to 2005 with the hope that attitudes will catch up with reality. We know that the challenge is not simply to compel people to be more understanding of those who struggle with these disorders, but it's also about moving people to recognize and acknowledge their own mental health problems, and those of their families, friends and colleagues. The more that a diagnosis of mental illness is accepted in the same way as a diagnosis of diabetes or heart disease, the better the human, social, health and economic outcomes.
Take a moment to educate yourself - read the signs and symptoms of mental illness at www.camh.net. You might be surprised at what you find, or how relevant it is to you or someone you know.
Michael is an inspiring man who has spent years working hard to get on with his life after his diagnosis. He deserves our support and praise. As we are enjoying the holiday season and planning for the year ahead, let's hope we may allow Michael to tell his story proudly next year, using his real name.
Rena Scheffer, Director, Public Education & Information Services
Christa Haanstra, Director, Public Affairs
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH)