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We Must All Work To Eliminate The Stigma Around Mental Illness

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Like many Canadians, I have been following the promotion of the Bell Let's Talk campaign in lead up to today. Let's Talk is an innovative public service campaign that has created a meaningful conversation about mental health. Like I do each year, I was planning to do some social media this week on the campaign, but I did not plan to devote a blog to the subject.

That changed on January 23rd, when I learned that a good friend had taken his own life the day before.

The news of his suicide quickly overwhelmed our group of friends with feelings of deep sadness and confusion. We engaged in the heartbreaking exercise of wondering what we had missed and whether we had failed our friend. It is hard not to have this reaction when you lose someone you care about in this way, but we must remember that we did not fail him.

Since our society has created the stigma associated with mental health, it is up to all of us to eliminate it.

What is clear is that our friend was suffering and he kept it to himself. His decision was so tragic because he did not feel that he could talk to someone about his mental health. The inability to talk about depression and other forms of mental injury or illness comes from the stigma associated with them. This stigma or discomfort has built up over centuries and was part of our culture until only the last decade or so.

Terms like lunatic and insane were used medically and were not considered the derogatory words they are now. When I was young, we would call the psychiatric hospital in our region the "Nut House." Against this backdrop of modern society, should we be surprised that people are still reluctant to seek help for a mental health issue? Since our society has created the stigma associated with mental health, it is up to all of us to eliminate it.

Like any physical part of our bodies, the mind can be resilient and strong, but it can also be worn down by events, injured by trauma, or impacted by illness. While it is taken for granted that you treat a physical condition with a visit to a doctor and possibly a hospital stay, people have been conditioned to avoid such treatments for mental health issues. This leaves people isolated and scared or embarrassed to get the help they need.

We must ensure that it is OK to talk about getting help. We must make discussion of mental health treatment and wellness normal, especially in our workplaces, schools and social groups. We must reinforce the importance of mental wellness and remind our friends and families that proper treatment for a mental injury or condition can lead to recovery, just like any other health issue.

We must reinforce that seeking care is not only what is necessary, it is expected.

Nowhere is the stigma more pronounced than in the military and first responder communities. Reducing the stigma associated with mental injuries like post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD") is a particular challenge given this subculture is rooted in the image of "toughness." While physical injuries from uniformed service were viewed as an honourable result of the risks from serving the community or country, mental injuries were strangely viewed as a choice by the afflicted.

As recently as a few decades ago, the military would view people impacted by a mental injury as "lacking morale fibre." Mental health issues were often viewed as a character flaw and not the injuries that they were. Today we thankfully understand mental health issues better and know that these injuries can be treated successfully, but the stigma of centuries is difficult to eradicate. As Bell Let's Talk spokesperson Michael Landsberg reminded a gathering of military and veteran advocates on Parliament Hill last year, mental illness means you are "Sick, Not Weak."

Suicide tears apart the family and friends of the person who makes that fateful and lonely decision. Part of the deep tragedy of a suicide is the fact that the devastated family and friends could have been the ones who would have helped guide the person to treatment and a road out of despair. As a society, we must continue to talk about the need to seek help for mental health issues. We must reinforce that seeking care is not only what is necessary, it is expected. We must show our outstretched hand waiting to help guide our loved ones out of the darkness of depression and reinforce that we are with them on their journey to wellness. Talk can be difficult, but it will save lives.

The Honourable Erin O'Toole is the Member of Parliament for Durham, the former Minister of Veterans Affairs, a retired RCAF Captain, and a candidate for Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.

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