Ottawa, ON – I have worked in mental health for more than 30 years. That is quite a long time and it is quite remarkable how much has changed over these three decades. Simple things like how we communicate or how we access information.
As much as I celebrate this progress, it saddens me to know that these strides are not being matched when it comes to how we perceive mental health problems. Unfortunately, stigma still clings to mental illness, just as it did when I began work as a mental health nurse in Newfoundland. That isn’t to say that things haven’t improved; they have. However, as far as I’m concerned, we need to move the needle further, and we need to do it faster.
Why? Let’s start by looking at some numbers. Every year, one in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem or illness. That’s more than twice the number of Canadians with diabetes. Perhaps more shockingly, on average, 10 Canadians die by suicide each and every day.
I firmly believe that the mental health of our country’s citizens is a litmus test for our health as a society. Yet, mental health has suffered chronic underfunding and there is fierce competition for money for mental health research and programming. Meeting this economic challenge is crucial, because mental health issues touch all elements of our society.
That said, the news isn’t all bad. Seven years ago, before the creation of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, Canada was the only G-8 country without a mental health strategy. Now we are regarded as an international leader – due in large part to the development of Canada’s mental health strategy, Changing Directions, Changing Lives. This year, we have seen indications that the recommendations in the Strategy are gaining traction across Canadian society.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police now prioritize the mental health of police personnel and there has been considerable discussion about the mental health and wellbeing of our military servicemen and women. Make no mistake: these tough, strong professionals are just as vulnerable to mental health challenges as you or I, and given the nature of their profession, they may be at greater risk than most.
Indeed, Canada’s initiatives regarding the improvement of mental health in the workplace are gaining international acclaim. I have spoken about the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace at conferences from Beijing to Auckland to London. The appetite for the knowledge on how to make workplaces mentally healthy, retain staff and boost productivity is voracious.
Another positive indicator is the responsible media coverage that we are beginning to see of mental health issues and deaths by suicide. For the most part, the Canadian media reported the tragic passing of Robin Williams this year with sensitivity and appropriate discretion.
Journalists, in particular, have a crucial role to play when it comes to dissipating the stigma that persists around mental illness. Which is why, when I was watching the recent coverage around the tragic and violent incidents in Moncton, Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa, I was deeply saddened to hear terms like “whack-job” and “crazy person” used to describe the perpetrators. Assigning these pejorative labels is not only irresponsible, it also perpetuates the poisonous attitudes that cause individuals with mental illness to suffer the double diagnosis of symptoms – and stigma.
On reflection, I believe we have reached a crossroads. We can continue to be content with the status quo, or, we can build on the momentum we have created and make strides that will benefit our society in ways we can’t yet even conceive.
I wrote this commentary on a featherweight tablet and submitted it to the editor by e-mail. Thirty years ago, that was the stuff of science fiction. I sometimes wonder what progress that we, as a society, will have achieved on mental health 30 years from now? The future is ours to shape – It begins today.
– Louise Bradley, President and CEO, Mental Health Commission of Canada
ABOUT THE MENTAL HEALTH COMMISSION OF CANADA
The Mental Health Commission of Canada is a catalyst for change. We are collaborating with hundreds of partners to change the attitudes of Canadians toward mental health problems and to improve services and support. Our goal is to help people who live with mental health problems and illnesses lead meaningful and productive lives. Together we create change. The Mental Health Commission of Canada is funded by Health Canada.
Glenn Johnson, Senior Media Relations Specialist
Mental Health Commission of Canada