I was relieved to find out about the newly announced Committee on Mental Health. As someone who has personal mental health issues (who doesn’t have mental health issues these days?), and has been in the mental health system for nearly 10 years, I know that it’s in desperate need of change. Still, I’m wary of being too optimistic too soon. Changing the mechanics of the system won’t help much if we don’t change the general perception that those who are sick are “weak” or “crazy” and somehow responsible for their condition.
When I came to UTM three years ago, I took advantage of the Health and Counselling Centre’s services as well as the AccessAbility Resource Centre’s mentor program. For the most part, I’ve felt supported throughout my university years, but this is not the case for everyone. Before being given the chance to see a psychiatrist, I had to undergo a screening process in order for the HCC to collect information and assess my need for services. It’s distressing to know that some people are turned away because there aren’t enough resources for everyone, and that some people are given priority, while others are deemed to be, basically, not ill enough for treatment. (The problem is, who should be allowed to make that call?) There are also long wait times—sometimes several months—to get an appointment with the psychiatrist who only works one day a week.
I write this not because I wish to criticize the mental health care system, but because writing openly and honestly about mental health issues will help decrease the more pressing issue of the stigma surrounding mental health. Because of the stigma, it can be difficult for people to recognize their own mental health needs, tell others, and seek treatment.
Even those trained in the profession sometimes misunderstand mental health. I once admitted to my case manager at CMHA that I couldn’t take it anymore. She replied, “Go to the washroom and put on some lipstick. That’ll help. It always helps me.” I followed her suggestion not because I thought it would work, but because I didn’t want her to feel stupid.
I was reminded of the severity of the stigma last November when I covered the UTSU’s AGM and then-president Shaun Shepherd cried in front of more than 300 members of UTSU during his presidential address as he described his episode of depression, saying that he had a breakdown due to the alleged attacks on his team.
Not only are people unaware of the effects their actions have on the mental health of others, intentional or not, there’s still much misunderstanding and fear surrounding it. Taking him at his word, Mr. Shepherd’s actions were brave; in the face of so much discrimination and at the risk of social exclusion, he spoke openly and honestly about it. And that’s what they say is going to diminish the stigma: open and honest discussion.
That those who are mentally ill should have to fight their demons on top of the stigma that often stops them from getting help for fear of being seen as weak is, to say the least, terribly depressing. And the eradication of the stigma may mean life or death for many suicidal people.
We need to change the way mental health is regarded in our society. It’ll allow those who have issues to come forward and ask for help. If mental illness is accepted for what it is, the issues will be addressed. If they’re addressed, there will be less suffering and suicides.