Talk away stereotypes

Crazy, cuckoo, psycho, wacko and nutso.

Crazy, cuckoo, psycho, wacko and nutso.

They are among the terms some less-informed Canadians use to pathetically poke fun at people suffering from mental illnesses — a disease that specialists call a national public health crisis.

One in five Canadians will suffer a mental crisis at some point in their life, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

And it’s no laughing matter.

Ignorance has thrown up a major roadblock for those who should be seeking treatment.

Many afflicted hide in shame in a world filled with hopelessness, consumed and victimized by a disease that — all to often — carries the stigma of being weak or a freak.

And it is a disease: a physical condition that short-circuits the brain.

That’s part of the message conveyed by Canadian Olympic speedskating and cycling star Clara Hughes in a campaign sponsored by Bell Canada to bring attention to mental illnesses — in particular, depression. The athlete once suffered in silence from severe depression, crippling her drive until she started talking about it.

Hughes spoke out last Wednesday during Bell’s Let’s Talk Day, in hopes of strengthening those shackled by depression.

It can happen to anybody, Hughes stressed, and she encouraged victims to find someone to talk to.

“I couldn’t get out of my own way,” Hughes said of her darkest days. “I’d be in airports by myself, going to a training camp and just bawling my eyes out. I knew there was something wrong with me, but the mistake I made was thinking I could fix myself, that I just had to be stronger and I had to get over it.”

She finally talked to Canada’s Olympic cycling team doctor Gloria Cohen, who diagnosed depression. Hughes was treated and says she has been blessed with a second lease on life.

Many aren’t so fortunate. Some shying away from help for lack of understanding and compassion have turned to suicide. About 4,000 Canadians suffering depression kill themselves every year and between 40,000 and 80,000 attempt it.

The CMHA reports depression and anxiety disorders affect almost 3.4 million Canadians. More than two-thirds don’t seek help and more than half won’t talk about it.

“The cumulative data from A Report on Metal Illness in Canada . . . and the results of this survey confirm the need for continued education about depression and anxiety,” said Karen McGrath, former CMHA national president. “The sense of shame, discrimination and social isolation around mental illness presents a barrier to people seeking the help they need. There should be no more shame around depression and anxiety than there is about having arthritis or diabetes.”

The CMHA further observes: “It is human nature to fear what we don’t understand,” and branding those with a stigma of disgrace “can be more destructive than the illness itself.”

Bill Wickerson, co-founder of the Global Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, says the “archaic” attitude about depression “comes right out of the dark ages” which “blatantly discriminates” against the victims of a disease “many of us are trying to deposit in the dust bin of history.”

The World Health Organization reports that four of the 10 leading causes of disability in developed countries are mental disorders.

“Depression and anxiety can have devastating effects on people’s day-to-day lives, on their relationships and on their contribution to society,” said Dr. Sidney H. Kennedy, professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. “With treatment, patients have achieved remission — virtual elimination — of symptoms, giving them peace of mind and a second lease on life.”

But we can’t tackle mental illness thoroughly until we rid ourselves of demeaning stereotypes and start talking about it in an open, honest and compassionate fashion.

Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.