Speaking of Mental Illness

Derrick Coyle

Derrick Coyle

Whether we know it or not, there are people in our lives who are struggling with mental illness.

They may sit beside us in the classroom, interact with us at work, play on the sports team, attend the same social club, live on the block, travel in our circle of friends, or share our family dinner table.

Unlike physical injury or illness, mental illness is hard to spot. So convincing the mask, so deft the diversion, it’s sometimes those appearing least likely who bear the heaviest burden.

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Depression1In Canada, 27 first responders died by suicide in 2014 with four more taking their own lives in January of this year. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is now conclusively linked to traumatic exposures beyond the conventional war association. Victims of sexual abuse, other physical abuse and violent events, are being similarly diagnosed.

In the past few years in my own circles, a friend died by suicide at age 58, and the brother of a friend and former colleague, at age 29.

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The Numbers

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), 20% of Canadians will personally experience mental illness in their lifetime. Major depression will be experienced by 8% of adults at some point in their lives. Suicide accounts for 24% of all deaths among youth from the ages of 15-24 and 16% of deaths in the 25-44 age band. Almost half of the people who suspect they suffer from depression or anxiety, never seek a doctor`s help.

 

Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.

― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

The Stigma

Much like physical injury or illness, mental illness comes in many forms: General Anxiety Disorder (GAD); Major Depressive Disorder; Bipolar Disorder; Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD); Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), to name a few.

These are generally not the kinds of problems one is quick to accept or publicly broadcast. It is more likely the sufferer will attempt to disguise symptoms at work, at home, or both.

At work there is a reputation and career to protect. Not all employers have a stellar record for recognizing symptoms and providing meaningful support to employees suffering with mental health issues. For the employee, there can be real or perceived risks in its discovery. Will it adversely affect promotion? Or even a current position?

At home there is a family and social life to maintain. There is no time to wallow in self-pity. Why burden a spouse, scare the kids, or drive away friends?

Depression – sometimes referred to as a disease of loneliness – is often battled in isolation.

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The Conversation

Depression6aOn January 28th, the fifth annual Bell Let’s Talk campaign broke records with more than 122 million tweets, texts, calls and shares – activity levels nearly 12% higher than the prior year. At a $.05 per transaction, Bell’s 2015 contribution to the cause is $6,107,538.60. This year’s installment grows the commitment of Canada’s largest telecommunications company to a total of $73,623,413.80 of funding for Canadian mental health programs.

Canadian Olympian and the Bell Let’s Talk national spokesperson, Clara Hughes, commented on the success of the campaign while adding perspective and bringing focus to its underlying objective:

“We’ve made so much progress with Bell Let’s Talk and the mental health movement over the past 5 years. There’s much more to do to fight the stigma and help people get the help they need, and I cannot thank you enough for taking the mental health conversation further than ever before.”

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The Challenge

Depression3But talking about personal problems does not always come easy. This may be particularly true for baby boomers – many, the products of proud immigrant parents and the stoic, old-country thinking that crossed the sea with them.

For our generation, tears were generally considered a sign of weakness, and asking for help, an admission of defeat. Phrases such as, ‘Would you like to talk about it?’ or, ‘How does that make you feel?’ were scarcely part of the vocabulary when it came to matters of emotion. Personal problems – or Heaven forbid, mental ones – were tightly guarded.

That’s what is impressive about a decision by some friends to share their stories during the Bell Let`s Talk campaign, adding their voices to a very important conversation. Out of their candid accounts of personal challenges with anxiety and depression – and the overwhelming show of support their stories elicited – I’ve come to believe the potential for real change is found more in the discussion the initiative inspired, than from the dollars it raised.

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The People

“Brigid” and I attended the same high school in Toronto’s east end. Through the connectivity of social media, we picked up a friendship, decades later, to swap stories and enjoy a mutual appreciation for the Irish heritage we discovered we shared.

It was through Facebook that Brigid recently posted comments revealing a personal battle with which many friends and acquaintances were unaware.

“Despite the intent of today’s Mental Health initiative to eliminate stigma, share knowledge, tell personal stories, and raise much-needed money for research/treatment … I still feel I need to apologize for inundating news feeds with this subject,” she began.

“My closest friends know I’ve lived with depression / anxiety for most of my adult life. Otherwise, I’ve done what so many like me do, attempted to hide the fact… out of shame.”

“I’m an educated, relatively intelligent person, so rationally I know I shouldn’t have had to feel this way, but I did. I did because the majority of reactions, in general, were negative, judgmental, even fearful. But other oppressed groups who also suffered in silence for years have had the courage to finally ‘come out,’ so I’m going to ride on the coattails of their bravery and do the same.”

Brigid provides a glimpse at some of the barriers to diagnosis, treatment, and acceptance that the stigma and discrimination attached to mental illness presents:

“It’s taken me a long time to ‘come out’ publicly. You have no idea the rejection I’ve experienced in the past from education colleagues, Boards of Education, friends, and worst, the Mental Health System itself.”

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Judy and I have known each other since our early teens. She was my first sister-in-law on my side of the family.

It was also in a Facebook post that Judy shared her personal experiences with anxiety and depression. She told a story about a friend of hers who shared the symptoms and confessed her own misguided perceptions about treatment.

“‘D’ and I met in our late 30s when we became neighbours. At the time we were both working Moms and became fast friends. Over the years, we came to admit that we both suffered from many of the same issues, depression, zero patience, anxiety, and most of all a loss of control over our lives. She went and sought help, and when she told me she was on medication to help cope with these issues, I immediately thought LOSER!”

Judy’s story highlights the influence of stigma and stereotyping, the personal struggles with acceptance, and misconceptions surrounding treatment of mental disorders.

“I considered myself a very strong woman, managing a career in an executive position, a household with my husband and two very active young children. Everyone that knew me said that I could handle anything, and that nothing bothered me. The fact that I could handle anything that was thrown at me was very important to how I defined myself.”

For Judy, the full weight of the burden she had been carrying hit home with a spontaneous outpouring of emotion when she finally confided in a family doctor. But she was concerned when the discussion turned to options that included medications.

“The very thought of this put me in a tailspin and I was totally against it. I was also worried that I would become addicted.”

With further discussion and assurances from the doctor, Judy filled the prescription and soon noticed improvements. “… within six months I was amazed at how much better I felt. My job was still the same, my husband was still the same, and my kids still had a zillion activities. It was me that was different, I felt so much more in control of my life, and I liked the new me.”

While Judy has found relief from medications she expects she will need for the rest of her life, she also acknowledges the role of therapy which helped, “get to underlying issues that I had never really dealt with.” She went on to clarify a key point:

“I am not saying that medication is the answer for everyone. What I am saying is TALK, and see what can be done to help YOU, if you are feeling any of the same symptoms.”

And perhaps the best testimonial and very essence of the Let’s Talk initiative:

“I am no longer ashamed of needing to ask for help”

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But baby boomers by no means have the market cornered when it comes to mental health issues. It is an affliction that does not discriminate by age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, colour, or religious denomination.

David is a 25-year-old and a former colleague of mine. Our paths crossed shortly before I retired, when he was hired on contract with the company I was working for. In our two months overlap, I was impressed by his confidence, ambition, energy and enthusiasm. He was hard-working, innovative and well regarded among the thirty-five employees at the office. I was not surprised to later learn he had been hired full-time.

David peeled back the veneer to share a personal story of struggle with depression in a powerful piece written by Ryan Durgy, titled: Gay Men’s Mental Health: An Issue Finally Coming Out of the Closet.

His story tells of tormented youth and a lifelong battle with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and depression, first diagnosed when he was in the fifth grade. It touches on some of the challenges and idiosyncrasies of mental health issues for members of the LGBTQ community. It speaks of the suicide attempts he made in his darkest days.

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The Light

There are valuable lessons to be learned in these courageous stories of friends, and while the tweets, texts, calls and shares may have subsided, the importance of keeping the conversation going and fighting the stigma has not.

There are many ways to keep it rolling:

  • learn more on the topic of mental health through CMHA or the Mood Disorders Society of Canada (MDSC)
  • sufferers seeking help and exploring options with health professionals
  • friends and family learning about the disorder and how they can help
  • parents encouraging conversation and listening carefully to children
  • educational personnel trained to recognize and effectively respond
  • Government and private health plans modified to reflect current realities
  • employers examining policies and practices and training the right people to effectively manage them – An Employee Assistance Program is great, but less meaningful if it is the conditions of the workplace that substantially contribute to its activity

The Let’s Talk campaign was January 28th. The Canadian Mental Health week is the first week of May. These programs are helping to raise awareness and erode the stigma surrounding health issues affecting people all year round.

It’s a discussion that clearly needs to continue for the days in between.

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10 comments

  1. Sherry Mills says:

    This is a subject that most people do not want to talk about and unless you have know or lived with someone you has suffered with mental illness you will never know how this can affect their lives.One of the most things said is oh just suck it up,how can you say that to someone who in the first place has no idea what has turned their life upside down,it takes time to heal someone who has no idea how this problem even started so saying suck it up is wrong please everyone show compassion and if you have nothing other then suck it up to say just don’t say anything well written Derick keep up the good work,I love reading anyhting that you have written

    • DC says:

      Thanks, Sherry. I suppose it’s that kind of misconception that the fight against stigma is all about. In the ‘Google’ days, there is no shortage of useful information for those preferring to be more constructive. Or, there’s always the old-fashioned way … ask the one suffering what can be done (or said) to help.

  2. Penny Mclean says:

    Thanks for this article Derrick. Loved reading it. I too have someone close who deals with issues everyday. Keep up the good work.

    • DC says:

      Thanks very much Penny. For something that affects so many, it’s encouraging that it seems to be finding its way into constructive discussion.

  3. Valerie says:

    Very well written Derrick. As you and Sue already know, I’ve been dealing with depression the majority of my adult life. I don’t go around telling just anyone about it, but I also don’t try to hide it and deal with it all by myself. We need to acknowledge that it is an illness like any other, not a weakness. The more we talk openly about it, the less unwarranted stigma gets attached to it. My sister once told me to “just stop thinking sad thoughts and be happy”, if only it was that easy. Thanks for the great article Derrick.

  4. Barbara says:

    I am a retired Toronto Police officer. I have battled depression my entire life – and it was not from the job. I suffered throughout my teens being the class clown but sad on the inside. When I was finally diagnosed (1997), I was a single Mom and a police officer. There is a stigma within the Service about mental illness and I had only a few close friends I trusted with my ‘secret’. One good thing came from my illness – it made me a better officer. I was more patient and compassionate to mentally ill people I dealt with in the community. At some point I ‘came out’ per se and started talking about my illness. I was surprised to learn how many of my friends and family also suffered. I lost my younger brother to mental illness. He would not seek the help he needed and committed suicide. I speak freely now – I am not ashamed. I try to encourage those I see in pain to seek treatment as I did. Yes, I am on medication. No … it is not a quick fix. It takes a lot of hard work and determination to get up and live every day with this insidious illness.
    I have had to learn to accept that mental illness is as much a part of me as is my physical appearance and my personality. I cannot change who I am but by opening up … maybe I can help someone else.

    • DC says:

      Thanks for sharing your story, Barbara. You make great points, useful not just to people experiencing depression, but to others interested in better understanding the illness for a positive supporting role.

  5. Dave says:

    Thanks for these stories. You and I go back – what, 50 years? We picked up again on FB a few years ago. Truth – although I was officially diagnosed with Clinical Depression in my late 30s, following my divorce, a Counsellor suggested it may have began much earlier, perhaps around Grade 5 or so. You and I share a similar upbringing (although my parents were born here) so talking about such stuff was hard. Thanks for the insights, this is a topic that truly needs to be discussed.

    • DC says:

      Many years since we trod the sacred grounds of St Willy’s (and I think St Joseph’s where we landed for a year on account of space). Thanks for your comments, Dave. An illness of such complex cause and misunderstood effect. Discussion, it seems, can only help.

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