We need to do better in addressing mental health

Why don't we take mental health issues seriously when the numbers clearly show the damage?

Last week I responded to a call here at the Gazette from someone who said their front garden had been destroyed by vandals the night before.

Well, that’s not exactly what they had said, but that was the gist of the message relayed to me when I arrived at the office.

So, I headed off to the address on the note to find out what was going on.

It turned out that there was a man with some mental health issues who was trying to create a special kind of ecosystem on his rental property. He had been told by his doctor that it was maybe time to start thinking about “going back to work,” after a few years off to get his emotional situation under control. He lived in a four-plex and his neighbours and landlord had contrary feelings on what should be done with the yard, so they had taken action, cutting down his plants (which by all accounts, including his own, had been harvested from nearby properties in the neighbourhood).

I discussed the matter with my editor and we decided it wasn’t really newsworthy. It was, after all, essentially just a spat between residents and there was really no risk to public safety or any other aspect to the tale that would cause it to be “a story.”

It was, however, an opportunity for me to examine, in this edition of my musings, the way we treat mental illness as a society. These types of altercations and others that crop up due to the way we deal with mental health happen all around us every day.

One night this week on The National, CBC’s flagship news program, host Peter Mansbridge convened a panel of medical experts to discuss the issue of mental health and where we are in Canada in dealing with the topic. The general consensus was that we’re not really doing that well.

A 2010 study by the Mental Health Commission of Canada said that on any given week, approximately 500,000 Canadians are unable to work due to mental health. That’s right – half a million people. Per week.

This is estimated to cost the country more than $50 billion per year in health-care costs, lost productivity and reduced quality of life.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in five Canadians will experience mental illness of some type in their lifetime.

Twenty-four per cent of all deaths among 15 to 24 year olds are suicides, as are 16 per cent of all deaths among those aged 25 to 44.

These are terrible numbers. And we’re not doing enough to help bring them down.

Why not? Why is there still a stigma attached to mental health when one in five people experience it? Why are we not taking it seriously?

“When you look at the burden of mental illness in terms of the amount of suffering and also the amount of disability that’s caused by mental illness, we’re probably not resourced enough,” says Lesley Weisenfeld, deputy chief of psychiatry and head of the Geriatric Psychiatry Consultation Liaison Service at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. Part of the mental health panel on The National, she added that the resources we do have to address the issue are also not managed properly.

Part of the reason for that lack of resource allocation is because of the many societal misconceptions and stigmas surrounding the issue itself.

“One of the biggest (misconceptions) is that you should just be able to overcome (mental illness) on your own,” Weisenfeld said.

Danielle Martin, a family physician at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, added there’s also a misconception out there that people with mental health issues are violent, and part of people’s unwillingness to address the topic is a fear of those who are suffering.

“People who are mentally ill are much more likely to harm themselves than harm others,” Martin said. “We need to help the general public understand that a person who is mentally ill is not a risk to you as a member of the public, but (they are) someone who needs our help and deserves our collective effort.”

It’s time we start devoting the resources necessary to deal with this issue.

Mental health needs to be a discussion we have in the open, proudly, so we can start looking critically at not only how we think about it, but how we’re going to tackle it.

Let’s bring those numbers down.