02/14/2013 05:21 EST | Updated 04/16/2013 05:12 EDT

Mental Illness Is Not a First World Problem


Recently a video titled "First World Problems Anthem" has been all over my Facebook and Twitter timelines. The video features impoverished Africans reading out "First World Problems," such as "I hate when my phone charger won't reach my bed," with the intent of getting viewers to donate to the Water is Life charity.

The video ends with the statement that "First World Problems" are not problems. It is hard to disagree with this considering the video accurately portrays what "First World Problems" are. However, this phrase, which has become somewhat of a popular meme, is often used in a problematic manner. More specifically, the term "First World Problem" is troubling when it is used in an attempt to delegitimize serious issues simply because others may be worse.

Examples of the problematic usage of "First World Problems" vary from describing the struggle of Quebec students against tuition increases, to protests against police brutality. However, I would like to focus on one of the most serious examples of this problematic attitude, namely the reaction of much of society to mental health issues.

You have probably heard the following sort of statements, been the one saying them, or had them directed at you; perhaps even all three.

"Depression isn't real. You're just being weak. You don't think I've ever been sad? Get over it."

"Stop telling me that you're anxious, you're not the only one. Everybody gets nervous sometimes, you just have to learn to deal with it."

"You have food, a house, money, a car, what more do you want? So many people have it worse than you! Stop complaining."

These sorts of statements are common because mental health issues are invisible. Those without mental health issues equate their feelings of sadness to those of someone with depression, when in reality this is like comparing a small paper cut to a broken arm. Since mental health issues are not visible, they are often characterized as symptoms of a whiny and entitled generation of spoiled Westerners who do not realize how good they have it.

This characterization is entirely misguided however, as mental health issues are not a "First World Problem" but instead a problem which has the potential to affect all humans regardless of class, race, gender, or ethnicity. The fact that Western citizens may have more capital and time to deal with mental health issues does not mean they do not exist for others, nor does it mean that they should not be dealt with whenever they can be.

Mental health issues are not a "First World Problem" because the benefits of the first world are irrelevant to mental health. Certainly those with greater wealth can receive better treatment for their issues, but, the car you drive, or the square footage of your house do not matter when you are trapped within a mental cell of pain.

While it is clear that mental health issues are not a "First World Problem," there are still problems with the way the first world deals with these issues as a whole. Whether it is on a personal level as previously mentioned, or a societal level, as illustrated by the lack of discussion regarding mental health after the Newtown shooting, it is clear that no state within the world is doing enough to deal with mental health despite some positive exceptions. For example, Bell recently launched a campaign called "Let's Talk" where five cents was donated to mental health programs for every Bell call made, as well as every tweet which included the appropriate hash tag.

Though I noticed a great deal of support for the campaign, I can only wonder if this support extends to reality. You can share a photo, but will you help a friend in need? I can only hope so, because while mental health issues may seem like an insurmountable obstacle, starting with those in your own life is the best step forward. Those who need help are not always those you cannot see, sometimes they are all around you, suffering in silence.

The Toll Of Mental Illness In Canada