We can’t afford to keep silent about mental illness


We can’t afford to keep silent about mental illness; Greater openness and better education will help remove the stigma of a disease that affects us all

Montreal Gazette
Wed Feb 9 2011
Page: A16
Section: News

Mental illness has a profound effect on relationships, quality of life, productivity and education in our culture. It touches the lives of every Canadian, and the cost to society is staggering.

According to Health Canada, 20 per cent of Canadians will experience some form of mental illness during their lifetime and the remaining 80 per cent will be affected by an illness in a family member, friend, colleague or loved one.

Yet, it remains a topic shrouded in silence.

“We still don’t know how to talk about mental illness, and we prefer to ignore it,” says Jean-Luc Taschereau, president of the Mental Illness Foundation.

For the past 30 years, the organization has been working in Quebec, educating people to detect depression and get help sooner.

“Mental health should be a priority for us. Almost no one is sheltered from mental illness and life’s difficulties. We forget that everyone is vulnerable,” says Dr. Stephane Kunicki, a psychiatrist and scientific spokesperson for the Foundation. “Personality, culture and gender all play a role in the way mental illness will manifest itself.”

Ami Quebec, another long-standing organization, helps Quebec’s English community cope with mental illnesses. For 33 years, it’s been offering telephone counselling, referrals to other counsellors, support and help with mental illness.

Both organizations cite the lingering stigma attached to mental illness as one of the biggest obstacles to their work.

“People are not well informed and remain reluctant to seek help. This stigma prevents people from educating themselves and knowing the benefits of finding help,” says Ella Amir, executive director of Ami Quebec.

Shame and fear often prevents people from seeking treatment.

The Canadian Mental Health Association found that more than half of people living with mental disorders said that they were embarrassed about their health problems.

The Canadian Medical Association found 46 per cent of the 1,002 Canadians surveyed for the 2008 National Report Card on Health believed that mental illness was “an excuse for bad behaviour.”

“Half the battle is getting people to come in to treatment. Too often people believe they can do it by themselves and have the attitude that ‘I can come out of this by myself.’ But if they consulted, they could avoid suffering and long-term symptoms,” says Taschereau.

Early detection and treatment is a key component, particularly with youth. The Foundation’s Partners for Life program reaches out to approximately 60,000 of Quebec adolescents annually, helping them recognize the signs of mental illness and encouraging them to get treatment.

“We are seeing a reduction in teen suicide, but we are not there yet. There is still a long way to go. Mental-health awareness needs to be mandatory in schools,” says Taschereau.

Lack of funding for mental-health research and services is another barrier to progress.

“The shift toward fewer hospital beds doesn’t translate into new (or consolidated) services in the community that could compensate for bed closures,” says Amir. “With the shortage of resources in communities, people too often fall between the cracks. Instead of getting the help they need, their family takes them on or they end up homeless or in jail.”

The direct costs associated with mental illness are huge.

“We need to recognize the prevalence of mental illness and that the cost to society -the loss of jobs, income and productivity -are enormous,” says Taschereau. “We lose $33 billion a year due to mental illness in Canada.

“By 2020, it’s going to be the most prevalent cause of long-term disability just after cardio-vascular disease,” he says.

Kunicki says throwing money at the problem is not the solution.

“Wait times must improve,” he says. “Waiting for treatment can take up to one year.

“If someone has a long waiting period they could end up in a revolving door scenario, in and out of emergency rooms, using up limited resources,” Kunicki says. “That’s too long. Mental health must become a priority.”