02/18/2013 01:19 EST | Updated 04/20/2013 05:12 EDT

The Fear of "Coming Out" With Mental Illness

When I first wrote about my mental illness in Convivium magazine, in letters published in the newspapers, and broadcast my radio series, "The Many Voices of Mental Illness," I was told that I was brave as if "coming out" would be self-destructive. But, that is the problem with "coming out." Too many of us fear the response of others to our illness. And with good reason

Forty-six per cent of Canadians think people use the term mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour; only 49 per cent said they would socialize with a friend who had a serious mental illness; only 12 per cent of Canadians said they would hire a lawyer who has a mental illness.

The stigma that is still associated with mental illness keeps so many hidden away. Fear is our biggest enemy: fear of receiving the diagnosis; fear of accessing care; fear of others finding out; fear of those with mental illness. Twenty-seven per cent of the population are fearful of being around people who suffer from serious mental illness.

It just isn't cool to have a mental illness. You don't see the famous or the infamous proudly wearing a bracelet identifying them with the needs of the mentally ill. In Canada mental illness is the second leading cause of human disability and premature death.

Matt Gurney, a columnist at the National Post, wrote after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary that to prevent such horrors from happening again we should establish a "snitch hot line" to report people we suspect might be mentally ill.

Wilhelm von Humboldt said in the18th century, "Language is, as it were, the external manifestation of the minds of the peoples. Their language is their soul, and their soul is their language."

Snitch is a word we associate with criminals. If we employ that language then we unconsciously criminalize the mentally ill and follow through with criminal protocols instead of providing health care. We don't call the police for any other disease. Suggesting that we snitch on those we suspect of being mentally ill will lead to more suspicion, isolation and silence and the mentally ill will continue to retreat into the shadows.

I have written before that words and labels matter. Dr. David Koczerginski, Chief of Psychiatry: Medical Director, Mental Health and Addictions: William Osler Health Centre told me:

Psychiatric Illness and mental Illness have a pejorative meaning for many, reflective of a lack of understanding of such illnesses and continued societal stigma. Psychiatric illness also has similar biological/neurochemical underpinnings and similar predisposing risk factors as one finds in other areas of medicine, however they are less easily understood and this has sadly contributed to diminished empathy and ultimately diminished investment of health care resources. There are many ways to educate and attack stigma. Whether we re-label psychiatric illness or whether we re-educate on the nature of psychiatric illness is an interesting question.

I do wonder, though, if we were to refer to those who are disconnecting from reality, whether it is depression or schizophrenia as dealing with a brain disorder, would people like Matt Gurney suggest a snitch hot-line?