On January 23rd, 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.
Over the years, I have noticed many instances where professionals felt that they were supposed to be above all of life's challenges and obstacles. Not just health care workers ignoring their own health; but leaders who feel stressed by circumstances beyond their control and who live in fear of being discovered so that they feel anxious and afraid.
We continue to be bombarded with graphically depicted messages that either romanticize suicide in terms of simplistic Romeo and Juliet dreck, or unfairly portray those in the midst of a mental illness crisis as "mad." We start believing falsehoods that keep perpetuating negative stereotypes and stigma.
In my family, the incidence of mental health problems runs high. My mother and her twin sister are both bipolar. On my father's side, one of my aunts was bipolar and two of my cousins are schizophrenic. While some people dispute the idea that mental illness can be hereditary -- and I, too, believe in the importance of social and environmental causes -- you can nonetheless see that the odds were pretty high that someone else in my immediate family might get hit over the head with it, too
I felt like I was daring myself to cross some arbitrary line in the sand, and once I did, there would be no turning back. Canadians' perceptions of who I was, and certainly their knowledge of my life story, would be forever altered. Even if only a few dozen people heard my story, it felt big to share personally and publicly.
In mental illness, we are constantly mixing apples and oranges. The causes are not the same and neither are the treatments. When we lump them together we create more confusion. And when there is lack of clarity, we tend to fill the gaps in knowledge with myths, superstitions, and mistaken attributions. That's when the quacks come out.
This is a time when sharing that you haven't been able to get out of bed for the past three days because of crippling depression is not only acceptable, it's appreciated by all who know the same searing pain of the illness. These days leading up to Bell Let's Talk day on January 27th comprise a massive support system unlike any other seen throughout the year.
Bell Let's Talk Day inspired active online engagement, attracted celebrity endorsements and the attention of media, all the while raising vital charitable dollars. But a one-day social media event is not enough to significantly move the needle away from ignorance, fear and silence. After all, what happens the next day, and the day after that? Social change requires more than a social media plan. It requires a long-term sustainable strategy. Because in our content-rich, highly distracted world, passion is sometimes overrun by profit, causes are sidestepped by things like limited overhead and the desire to stay current fuels an unyielding need to move onto the next big thing.
That's the thing about depression. When you're in the thick of it, you don't realize how far wrong things have gone; which is why it's important for all of us to look out for each other, and to watch for those subtle cues and clues that something is amiss with the people we love. It's hard to ask someone "Are you in trouble?" or "Do you need help?" and even "Are you OK?"
We need progressive organizations to build off the publicity of Let's Talk and call for a new day: Let's Act. When it feels like the snow will never melt and spring will never come, let's commit ourselves to act. Let's Act and demand more funding to mental health supports, including the improved public funding of mental health doctors, treatments and facilities. Let's Act and reject Stephen Harper's attempt to criminalize people with mental health struggles: help and rehabilitation rather than solitary confinement and life-long prison sentences.
Bell Let's Talk day is about hope. It gives you a chance to take off your mask and talk about your pain. It allows you to mourn the loss of who you were and to say, "It's okay I'm like this now." It cracks open the darkness for a minute and gives you hope by letting you realize there are people who've made it out to the other side.
You may have noticed that your social media feeds have been inundated with the #BellLetsTalk hashtag. That's because Bell Let's Talk day is on Wednesday, January 28. We need workplaces that value their employees' mental health. Employers need to lead by example by recognizing workplace signs of undiagnosed depression, such as difficulty making decisions, decreased productivity, inability to concentrate and any unusual increases in errors in work, just to name a few.
To really nail the concept of what mental illness is and how it affects both those who live with it and those who live with us, here are a few tips to guide in what I hope will be an ever-growing trend to encourage communication and break down the stereotypes. So without further ado, here are things to refrain from saying to someone with mental illness.