When my friend Jessica* lost her job and spent a year desperately seeking another she fell into a deep depression. "I'm in debt. I'm having a hard time paying my bills. I can't even get a job in fast food because they tell me I'm overqualified. I just feel like I can't come back from this. That my life is over," she told me.
My heart broke as I listened to her. Here was someone who had so many wonderful qualities and so much left to accomplish telling me she believed death was the only release from her suffering.
Jessica had a family history of depression and I knew that what I was seeing was the toxic combination of bad genes and life circumstances creating the "perfect" storm of hopelessness and despair.
Jessica had been proactive in dealing with her depression, working with her GP and a psychiatrist and trying a number of pills only to find out that she was one of the 20 per cent who don't respond to anti-depressants or experience unbearable side effects. I promised that I would help her find support and access counselling and set about trying to do so.
I had a hard time finding services on the internet, so I called one of the numbers that are typically given out to "help." I told them that what my friend really needed was therapy but couldn't afford it. "Do you know of any free services?" I asked the person on the phone. They directed me to 411.ca. Guess what? There were no free services in her area.
At every turn as I tried to get help, I encountered a mishmash of inadequate services offered by non-profits, universities and certain health authorities. Most had lengthy waiting lists with no flexibility for those who were desperate to be placed at the front of the line. A good proportion were in the format of group therapy which Jessica had already tried but hadn't felt comfortable with since she was shy and didn't like speaking in front of groups, let alone sharing her intimate feelings with them. Others were only offered to people who lived in a certain regional health authority with anyone living outside that area being out of luck.
In Canada, I quickly realized, depression is one of the only life-threatening illnesses that you have to be rich to get proper treatment for. Since 1961, Canadians have taken care of our neighbours, our family, and our friends if they have illnesses like heart disease, or diabetes. But if they're suicidal or depressed? We've basically said tough luck -- deal with it yourself.
This while more people are actually suffer from mental health issues each year than heart disease and diabetes combined. According to the Mental Health Commission, 6.7 million of Canadians suffer from mental illnesses compared with 1.4 million people who live with heart disease and 2.2 million with type 2 diabetes. Those staggering numbers mean that most people know and care about at least one person who is struggling with mental illness. Those numbers also mean that mental health issues cost the Canadian economy $50 billion per year in lost productivity and other costs.
By not fully including mental health issues in the conditions our health system treats, we're not just turning our backs on our family and friends when they need it most, we're also implying that mental illnesses are not "real" or "serious" illnesses. The fact that most people who do have "coverage" for things like counselling have it through their employee benefits where it's often a pittance that covers a few sessions and almost always lumped together with things like massage therapy, and acupuncture only contributes to the trivialization of mental health.
For people like Jessica, who don't have employee benefits and don't have extra money to pay for treatment, there are few options. Unemployment, poverty and debt are things that increase the likelihood of depression and suicide, so much so that researchers who recently studied Slovenia found regional unemployment rates as one of the major predictors of suicide rates. That means that many of the people who most need help are least likely to be able to afford it. Health care interventions work -- that same study found a correlation between the availability of mental health services and lower rates of suicide.
Jessica is only one Canadian in danger of joining the 3,500 others who die from suicide each year. I'm thankful that she is still here because a friend of hers paid for the therapy she needed. Not everyone is so lucky.
When someone famous like Robin Williams commits suicide because they were suffering from depression, you hear all sorts of people talk about how we need to reduce the stigma of mental illness and provide services for those in need. The problem is that many of the things needed like support for those suffering and counseling are expensive so our politicians don't take action. If we truly want to prevent suicides and help people, then we need to invest a lot more than we currently do in mental health services. The problem is that some of the same people who proselytize about how we need better supports would be up in arms if their taxes were increased. In an era of austerity, how else are we going to pay for it?
Getting citizen support to increase taxes to expand mental health coverage isn't such an impossible idea. In fact, in 2012 the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' BC Office published a survey in which the majority of British Columbians claimed they would willingly pay more taxes if the funds went to support specific policy outcomes.
Because of people like Jessica and the millions of other Canadians who suffer from mental health issues, I'm willing to pay more taxes for expanded mental health services. Are you?
*Names and certain details have been changed to respect the privacy of the individual
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