Friday, October 11, 2013

Mental Illness Awareness Week 2013: Are you Aware?


UPDATE, October 15, 2013

I found nothing in the weekend newspapers about the issue of mental illness.  Although I did find a piece in the sports section - I think it was the Star - which told of how a football player dared to wear green shoes in support of mental illness awareness week, and got fined heavily for it.  This happened while everyone else wore pink for breast cancer awareness month...

I'm not asking for a huge pity party, but a little more co-ordination and presentation of the week's events might allay my suspicion that the power of mental illness stigma is alive and well...still.


It’s October and that can mean only one thing.    Mental Illness Week is upon us again. My complaint is that we only usually hear of it after the week has come and gone.  I have noticed that this is a common thing with events around mental health.  I think there are some reasons for it, but I want to share some thoughts on the week with you right now.

I have had struggles with chronic clinical depression.  I think I was undiagnosed for a long time, but then the condition got the better of me.  I ended up in hospital in 2004 and that is when I finally started getting help for the condition.  As part of my recovery, I appeared on CITY-TV’s Breakfast Television in October 2004 as part of the Mental Illness Week that year.  I spoke for two minutes on my experience and everyone seemed to think I did well.  I overheard a remark that I should be in the hospital’s PR department.

I only found two articles from the Toronto Star this week, and it seems that they were only available online.  I burned through my access for the Star so far this month, and so can’t put the links here.  In addition, the umbrella group overseeing the week has a few posts and media coverage about it, but that’s about it.  So it is difficult to find media coverage, and I think there are a few reasons why.

I heard a family member tell me in the midst of my depression to just snap out of it.  Easy to say, not so easy to do.  And when we hear something like that, the person saying this can point to their statement and say I tried to help…  So there is this thought that we can just get over things and get on with it, but that isn’t the case.  What I faced had an impact on my whole life.
There are common beliefs about mental illness, incurability, danger and the mythology that it’s all in someone’s head.  This leads others to play the blame game and not offer assistance.  It also provides an excuse to not offer assistance before the fact.  The experience I have had tells me that there is much more to this attitude than meets the eye.  The attitude is one of those ‘natural’ conditions in social life that we see: that’s just the way it is.

We also have a  myth that people with depression/mental illness don’t need help because they are somehow faking it or just seeking attention.  I know I was seeking attention because I was trying to cope on few economic resources and social supports and battling depression at the same time. 

My mother’ s husband was not supportive of me.  He was hypercritical from the moment he found out I was struggling.  And no matter what I tried to explain, it was never good enough.  I was being lazy and I needed to snap out of it and get on with things.  Little did I know that this was part of a campaign of abuse he had in mind.  Then there was the time he tried to have me locked up for being crazy.  Despite working, despite going to therapy and staying in touch with friends, I wasn’t doing enough and he wanted to colonize my life to remove me from the family.  This also illustrates the fact that people who have mental health issues will find themselves on the receiving end of abuse and social stigma more commonly than anyone knows.  I also found out that he had been spreading the rumour that I was an alcoholic.

At the time he said this I was working nights and sleeping daytime, and I wasn’t interested in drinking anyway: I didn’t have the money for it.  What do you think those hearing this rumour thought anyway?

In addition to this, background we also now know that there is a bias against the mentally ill in our culture.  The fact we have seen so many police shootings of people with mental health problems in the last ten years is proof enough that there is an operational bias against those who are struggling.  It also shows that we are more willing to sanction as opposed to help those who need it.  The Sammy Yatim shooting is an example of this and there are definitely others.  The point is that when we have options, those options are great in theory and ignored in fact and action.

This goes to the idea that the mentally ill are commonly discriminated against.  I remember hearing someone in a session once who said they got told, you don’t look crazy…  The Toronto Star also ran an article in 2012 on medical discrimination against the mentally ill.  Doctors concluded that people who were in emergency asking for help and had a mental health diagnosis either wanted the attention or they were faking it to get drugs.  This led to patients almost dying in hospital without care.  So this is a common thing, as opposed to a rare event.

In 1988 my mother was part of the CMHA in Lindsay, Ontario.  Specifically she was helping set up a place called Harrison House, a half-way home for people with psychiatric backgrounds.  Predictably, the neighbours didn’t’ like the idea of crazy inmates living next door to them.  One person presenting against the place actually said that when we were in the public meetings.  I helped write the policy manual for that place: merging two documents and creating a new operations manual.  Needless to say, the house went through but not after a lot of needless back and forth about how safety was going to be the major priority.

Not health of the community, not helping the residents get better and getting back into the world, but how they were not going to be a danger to others.  That is a concrete example of stigma and discrimination in action, and I don’t think it’s that uncommon even now in the twenty-first century.

I had my own encounters beside the issue with my mother’s husband.  I was at a downtown emergency ward which catered to those with mental health issues, and after waiting there for about two hours or so with my counselor, I was told by the doctor who looked at me, “I don’t think you’re doing enough to look after yourself.”  And then I was sent home.  Of course, had they done a blood test they might have found my sugars elevated after four days of not eating, but nothing like that happened.  Just: you’re fine and making too much of things.  Go home. 

The killer question was: do you have anything in the house to eat?
Yes: well you’re not doing enough to feed yourself, you’re fine.
No: well you just need to go get groceries and not lie in bed all the time. You’re fine.

Quebec’s Proposed Bill 52 allows for people undergoing psychological stress – my term – to ask for death.  That would presumably also be allowed in the case of those who had depression such as I did, or if a doctor decided that a patient wasn’t worth it.  We have already seen my mother’s husband and his attitude toward my recovery; we have seen how doctors discriminate against the mentally ill when they have medical needs and now we have my experience at the emergency.  So we are now looking at a trend, not a series of one-off situations.  If we can find the same ideology operating in the background in different times and places, then there is a social trend happening on the face of it.  That means there is no longer any room for blame of the victim or ignoring the real problems of mental health: we now have the information at hand.  So if nothing changes, we are making a choice not to change the situation.

I think besides discrimination, we also see how patient autonomy is all the rage.  We think that we can solve social and medical problems if only the patients/ciients have the free choice.  I think I have shown here how the patient actually has little social power in the client/caregiver relationship.  I know I certainly couldn’t get any leverage with my mother’s husband.  I also could not argue against the doctor who said I was a drugs addict, nor could I get a second opinion on needing help when I was depressed and not eating.  So the notion of autonomy for all is an illusion when it bumps into the real world.  When we look at it this way, the denials of attention from the media and denials of care for me and others in my situation are actually abandonment of those who are in a real need.  And that means autonomy can now be used as an excuse and social explanation for denials of care.  Which means that those who are denied care will not necessarily have the language to argue back, and that is why mental illness week either needs much more media coverage or it needs a critical reconsideration.  Happy Mental Illness Awareness Week 2013, everyone.

After I wrote this, I did hear a commentary about Mental Illness Week on the radio on Wednesday, and it was a telephone interview with a doctor from Whitby, and he agreed that there was much more that could and should be done to end the stigma and help people who had depression specifically but mental illness generally.  It’s still not enough ‘awareness’ for my liking.  However, I suppose it’s better than nothing.

I still have not seen anything in the papers, I suppose that means that we will see something on the weekend after all is said and done.


  1. WOW!! Very informative blog and useful article. Its very helpful for your visitors thanks for share such a nice article.
    attitude toward illness and aging

    1. Thank you sir! I don't always hit the mark, but I always try. I try to give a summary once a month or so if I can. I admit some of my writing isn't always as 'up', but I am writing on current health/ethics issues...which isn't always pretty.

      PS: This isn't the same David Warner the actor, is it?


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