Wed, October 4, 2006
Time to open eyes
By ROY CLANCY
Are you aware this is Mental Illness Awareness Week?
Neither was I until a press release popped up on my computer yesterday -- opening my eyes to the sad contradictions that shroud the subject.
When it comes to mental illness, it turns out we're not aware at all.
On one level, a lack of understanding promotes fear and stigma and keeps people from providing help or seeking assistance.
Yet the manifestations of mental illness that surround us should be impossible to ignore.
Homeless people crowd downtown streets. Drug abuse is rampant. In worst-case scenarios, such as the Dawson College shootings, we're left shaking our heads about what could drive a human to commit such horrific acts.
Yet the odd outbreak of incomprehensible violence doesn't really typify the trail of destruction and misery left by mental illness.
About 4,000 Canadians commit suicide each year and mental illness is a factor in most of these deaths.
A Canadian study reveals two-thirds of the homeless people using urban shelters suffer from a mental illness.
Of the 10 leading causes of disability, five are mental disorders.
The Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health (CAMIMH) estimates depressive illnesses will become the leading cause of "disease burden" in developed nations.
Across Canada, the toll of mental illness was $14.4 billion in 1998.
It's difficult to comprehend how a problem of such enormity can linger in the shadows of public awareness.
Yet linger it does, despite the fact some 600,000 Albertans will experience a diagnosable mental illness in their lifetime.
CAMIMH says people with depression, schizophrenia or severe anxiety should be free to deal with their issues as openly as someone suffering from heart disease or diabetes.
Sadly, research shows that stigma often causes people to delay seeking treatment and families to deny a relative might have a mental illness.
"Stigma continues to infect ever issue surrounding mental illness," says a CAMIMH discussion paper.
That's one reason the Alberta Mental Health Board (www.amhb.ab.ca) has launched a groundbreaking program to change the way people respond to mental illness.
The Mental Health First Aid program teaches people to spot the signs of mental illness and how to find help.
The program is open to anyone interested, from family members to teachers and health-care providers.
The goal is to eventually train one person every Alberta school.
If successful, it's not hard to imagine the impact early diagnosis and treatment could have not only on health care costs, but on the immeasurable impact of mental illness on society in terms of lost productivity, disability and early death.
The importance of this can't be understated. Despite a new $39 million mental health strategy announced by Alberta Health Minister Iris Evans last month, treatment and research have lagged behind.
Chronic-care facilities closed during reforms of the system decades ago have never been adequately replaced by resources for community based care.
The results are visible in the number of people languishing in homeless shelters, on the street or in jail.
Ironically, despite the signs all around us, this problem cannot be addressed until we finally open our eyes to the reality.