A few years after I graduated university, I took a job at a large multinational company. On paper, it was a good job, and I made very good money for someone of my age. But it wasn’t where I had expected to end up and I didn’t like the work. At the same time, my long term relationship was slowly dissolving and it felt like there was nothing I could do to stop it. Strange things started happening: I started tripping over my words in social situations. I began to dread interacting with others. While shopping for groceries–groceries!–I’d suddenly find myself overcome by a deep sense of helplessness.
I saw a therapist. The first sessions were covered by my company’s benefit plan — I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. But there was something else that was almost more helpful: Though I didn’t tell a lot of people about my depression, when I did, a surprising number admitted they had been through the same thing. Family members and people I had known all my life opened up to me about their experiences with therapy. I saw my closest friends differently. It was both shocking that I could know someone for so long and that they would hide this from me, and comforting to know that I wasn’t alone.
It’s hard to get people to talk honestly about mental health in Canada.
That’s something we need to change. Canada’s largest research centre, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, took out ads in newspapers, magazines, movie theatres and transit shelters last year to coincide with a major facelift of its facility. “Don’t worry. It’s just a phase,” read one, mimicking a typical dismissal of depression. “But for some, it can last a lifetime.” Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign highlights the incredible successes of people who have suffered from depression and mental health issues — people like six-time Olympic champion Clara Hughes and comedian Michel Mpambara. (Full disclosure: Bell is The Loop’s parent company.)
1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Fourty-nine per cent of people who feel like they’ve suffered from depression have never talked to a doctor about it, but even despite that, anxiety and depression are in the top five reasons for visits to the doctor. Imagine how much higher that number would be if the other 51% went.
There is still a significant stigma attached to depression, and it’s a shame — pun intended. Half of Canadians said they wouldn’t tell friends or coworkers if they had a family member with mental illness, although three-quarters would tell them that a family member had cancer.
So why is everyone so embarrassed? There’s the “just get over it” argument: that you can’t cure yourself of cancer, but with a little mental toughness, you can get though a blue spell. In other words, succumbing to mental illness equals weakness. But research shows that a number of factors can cause mental illness, including genetics and biology. Other people might argue that those genetic factors are the problem, that a mentally ill family member might reflect poorly on them and their “stock”. And yet, Canadians are more open about family members with diabetes, which can also have genetic causes.
Shame never does anyone any good. In the case of mental health, it brings out some very un-Canadian behaviour: Almost half of Canadians said they wouldn’t socialize with a friend who had a serious mental illness.
This is why it’s important to talk about these issues. Removing the stigma attached to mental illness is the best way to ensure that people who need help will get it. To that end, last month the Mental Health Commission of Canada released a national standard for workplace mental health and safety. It’s voluntary, but the first of its kind in the world, according to MHCC President and CEO Louise Bradley. And it’s in companies’ best interests to heed the guidelines. Consider that on any given week, at least 500,000 Canadians can’t work because of reasons related to mental illness. In 2011, it cost Canadian businesses $6 billion a year in lost productivity.
One thing’s for sure: The more open people are about mental health, the less they will feel alone. If we do nothing else, we need to drop the shame.