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Families are being encouraged through groups like HVM to think of auditory hallucinations, delusions, disorganized thinking, impaired functioning and other symptoms of severe mental illnesses as just part of the human condition, not medical problems.
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Efforts at improving mental illness literacy in Canada and the U.S. have been hampered by a problematic notion that education about biological aspects of mental illnesses will lead to greater stigmatizing of people with these disorders.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) announced in April that the Hon. Michael Wilson was taking over as chair. He knows the pain of being a family member and of advocating for improvements which are ignored. What troubles me is the press release which says the MHCC will continue in its role of "advancing the promotion of mental health -- and the prevention of mental illness."
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During the new session of the U.S. Congress, legislators will be considering the proposed "Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act." The decisions they make can have a big impact on mental health care in Canada.
Since Canada, like the U.S., has almost no science based public education about psychotic disorders, people with these illnesses are especially vulnerable to messages that they don't need medications and are better off avoiding them. As well, both countries lack adequate psycho-education programs for people with these illnesses.
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The word "mental" conjures fearful images; the "crazed" ax murderer, the "psycho" who stalks people and then stabs them repeatedly, the young man who takes a gun and sprays a stream of bullets in a room full of young children. Mental illness drags behind it a heavy bag of ignorance and confusion that has led to the stigma of shame and prejudice for those of us with the illness as well as our families, and continues to promote fear in the public square. Unfortunately, there are still too many people who abuse the mentally ill and use our illness as a means to play on people's fear. Rosie DiManno, a columnist I respect, has fallen into that category.
More than once as a young person (and even in adulthood) I've encountered professionals who believe my sexual orientation is the cause of my depression. I've also encountered professionals old enough to be my grandparents who suggest my sexual orientation is a mental illness in itself. It is why I remain skeptical to this day of seeking treatment; especially with a professional I've never met before.
When people suffering from mental illness receive intensive treatment in programs specifically designed for them, most of them do much better. Anti-psychotic medications are understood to provide the foundation upon which any other treatments can be added. These messages are in direct conflict with the message from journalist Robert Whitaker. Robert Whitaker does excellent work describing the egregious practices of the pharmaceutical industries. However, his extreme stance against the value of psychotropic medications is scary. Any parents of a psychotic son or daughter who heard his recent presentation in Vancouver would want to keep their child far away from the early psychosis intervention programs that offer the best hope for recovery.
Advertisements and billboards around Canada are encouraging us to discuss mental health problems as part of Bell's "Let's Talk" campaign on Feb. 12. However, those of us who wish Canadians could finally receive much needed public education about psychotic disorders are disappointed. Canada is fortunate to have quite a few early psychosis intervention programs. But given the poor state of knowledge about both the early signs and the existence of programs, too many families aren't getting the knowledge they need. These are major public health problems. Let's talk about them.
Current anti-stigma campaigns emphasize that most people with mental illnesses aren't violent. This is very true. They also point out that people with mental illnesses are much more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators. Also true.
But the research is clear that people with untreated psychosis are a greater danger to themselves and others than people who aren't psychotic. People with untreated psychotic disorders have a higher rate of violence than do the general population.
The annual convention of the U.S.-based National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) just finished educating its 1700 participants on the latest research relevant for people living with severe mental illnesses.And what's the situation in Canada? Families here certainly aren't being led to advocate for the most helpful education programs for people living with psychotic disorders.
Even though Schizophrenia Awareness Day is limited to May 24th, Canadians are exposed to education about schizophrenia all year long. Every time they read a gruesome news article about it, or have a difficult encounter with someone with an untreated psychosis, they receive confusing knowledge. It creates the kind of image of severe mental illnesses that crusaders against stigma would like them to forget.