I was getting a snack out of my office team room refrigerator when I got a call from a really close friend.
“My dad shot himself this morning.”
My heart felt as though it had plummeted through the floor and into the ground and then jumped out of my throat and higher than the sky. I felt sick. I was frozen and at a loss for words for a moment. Finally, I started to ask for more details.
I will never forget that moment and that sinking heart-sick feeling. That man was like a father to me. He could turn the mood of a whole room as soon as his smile beamed through the door.
He shared two traits with the late and beloved comedian, Robin Williams. He could make you laugh until you peed your pants, just like Robin, and he suffered from depression a treatable, but not curable, mental illness.
I’m approaching this topic today with these heavy memories in my heart as well as the memories of my mother, who suffered from bipolar disorder, because in Canada there is a campaign going on called Bell Let’s Talk. The campaign aims to open a conversation about mental health in hopes that these conversations will help end or lessen the stigma surrounding mental illness.
As of 2012, nearly 20% of all adults were considered to have a mental illness. I have some hesitation around the statistic, how mental illnesses are diagnosed (or mis- or overdiagnosed) and what it means for the wealth of the pharmaceutical industry, but it does show that a large population of our country feels they are suffering emotionally or psychologically in some way.
The stigma comes from an unwillingness for many American’s, and citizens of other countries, to show acceptance or compassion toward these individuals and their conditions. The ones that display their mental illness to extremes are often homeless or living in poverty who can’t afford the high costs of prescription drugs to treat these illnesses. I recently read an article about a study conducted using neuroimaging where “researchers found that the very poor are viewed with such disdain that they were dehumanized in the eyes of the beholders. Brain activity suggested that the very poor were viewed more like repugnant piles of garbage than as people.”
I see homeless folks at the Haven on a weekly basis who clearly have some mental health issues, but I still treat them with dignity and help them, just as I would any other person.
Other less extreme cases of mental illness, such as some cases of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), anxiety, personality disorders, or Tourette's Syndrome may result in an individual being bullied or harshly judged for behavior or feelings beyond his or her control.
Mental health is the leading risk factor for suicide. As of 2012, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. Depression can grip you to your soul, and make you believe the most treacherous of lies about yourself.
Change perception, change attitudes, change behavior
We can’t prevent mental illness, but we can start to change the conversation. We can’t take someone’s displayed actions, emotions, and behaviors at face value. The stigma surrounding mental illness is fueled by a perception that having a mental illness makes you somehow “less human,” weak, or “broken.” Treating others negatively based on this perception encourages these individuals to remain closed off when their saving grace is probably to make more human connections and defuse some of these feelings.
We also can’t assume that someone’s behavior indicates that they have a mental illness. Our best bet in reshaping the conversation, and ending the stigma, is showing more compassion and passing less judgement on those we see and encounter.