Some years ago, during one of the many long weekend afternoons of binge watching TED talks, I came across this talk by Ruby Wax, an American/naturalized British actress and comedian, where she talks about mental illness.
She starts off her talk by saying “1 in 4 people suffer from some sort of mental illness.” She then counts off the first 4 people she sees in the front row, then jokingly points to the one in the middle and says “Its you sir. Yeah, you.”
She’s funny and insightful, and quite worth the watch:
After doing a little bit of reading on her, turns out she’s more than just a comedian, she knows her stuff. She majored in Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, earned a postgraduate certificate in psychotherapy and counselling from Regent’s College in London, and a master’s degree in mindfulness based cognitive therapy from Oxford University.
She also has lived experience with Mental Illness. She says it herself: “I am one of the 1 in 4.” She has been very open about her struggle with Depression and has worked with many mental health charities, and was awarded an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for her work.
It’s safe to say I truly admired her after watching that video. Not just her aloofness when talking about her mental illness, but the fact that she had the courage to stand up in front of an international audience and even talk about it. Thanks to the stigma attached to mental illness, disclosing you even have one can cause a lot of barriers for a person. You loose friends, create problems in your professional life, alienate people. Ruby talks about that shame.
A particular quote in the video above really brings it home for me:
“I took to my bed for a month and when I woke up I found out I was institutionalized.When I saw the other inmates I realized I had found my people, my tribe, because they became my only friends. Very few people that I knew…well, I wasn’t sent a lot cards or flowers. I mean, if I had a broken leg or I was with child I would have been inundated. But all I got were a couple of phone calls telling me to perk up.
Perk up. Because I didn’t think of that.”
The challenge of having a mental illness is that it is very hard to understand what it is like unless you have lived experience, and even then its difficult. That lack of understanding makes it very hard to get rid of that stigma. People make generalizations, create stereotypes and constantly misjudge due to this ignorance.
Anyone is susceptible to it. I’ve met staunch mental health supporters and advocates who have still gotten it wrong and made statements so erroneous they made me cringe. And I’m no expert either.
But what many mental health advocates know is that the best way to fight the stigma is to be open about mental health, to talk about it. The more people willing to share their experiences, willing to tell their stories, willing to open up and talk to the public despite all their fears, the better chance there is of seeing some change.
And we need change, because despite the fact that 1 in 4 people will suffer from a mental illness, we don’t have the resources or social supports to help them. And society is not designed to accommodate those 1 in 4. In fact, there exists nothing but barriers that make people with mental health issues struggle just to live normal healthy lives.
I work as an Intake Worker for a Community Health Centre. We have a primary care model that goes far beyond just having a family doctor, we have a whole team of specialists and a holistic approach to health care. We don’t just treat illnesses, we treat the social problems that cause and aggravate them. We have Social Workers who provide counselling, and Community Health Workers who connect clients with social supports around income stability, housing, child care, legal issues, immigration, you name it.
I manage the wait lists for these services, and I can say there is a huge demand for support around mental health. We currently have 3 Social Workers at our centre but they are so busy and swamped with clients who need counselling that their wait list got to almost 2 years in length. We had to actually close our wait list. For every client who calls desperately looking for help dealing with their Mental Illness, it was my job as the Intake Worker to turn them away, and direct them to other services elsewhere. And it is not an easy job, because the reality is that I don’t really have that many options to give them. We aren’t the only agency with a long wait list. And it breaks my heart to turn these clients away.
Most people I talk to don’t even know how bad it is to get help for a mental illness. When go to the hospital for surgery, or for a broken leg, a hospital won’t discharge you unless they know that you have the supports in place at home or follow up care set up with other professionals ensure you don’t need to come back. If you need wound care, they connect with Community Care Assess Centre and a nurse comes and visits your home.
For someone who gets hospitalized for a mental health crisis, for example someone who survives a suicide, they get sent home with a list of organizations they can call to get counselling. And every single one isn’t taking on clients for at least a year, if at all. Imagine being sent home with an open wound from surgery, and being told a nurse will only be made available to change the bandages a year from now.
How do I know that this happens? Because I’ve talked to suicide survivors recently let go from the hospital. And had to turn them away.
Also, from all the advertising that CAMH does, you’d think that they provide amazing care. Yet most clients I’ve talked to that have been to CAMH don’t have very many good things to say about it.
Another thing most Ontarians don’t know is that under OHIP, counselling isn’t covered. You can wait a year to be placed with a Psychiatrist if you are lucky, but all they do is prescribe you medications and meet with you on a regular basis. They don’t provide Psychotherapy really, or any alternative treatment other than meds. They just let you talk and they monitor whether you are doing fine or not to adjust your medication. Non-profits offer counselling for free, but you need to be “eligible” and there are so many wait lists. You can meet with a Social Worker or Psychologist sooner, if you can afford a private one, but its very expensive.
We need change and our Government doesn’t do much more than just talk about it. We aren’t seeing any extra significant contributions at all.
But I have to admit that a part of me has felt like a bit of a hypocrite all this time. For all the attention and passion I have shared for issues around mental health, there is one thing I could do that I have been afraid to do all this time. I’ve been living in the proverbial mental health closet. And I think it’s about time I step out.
You see, I too suffer from a hereditary mental illness. Most of my life I have struggled with Clinical Depression myself.
I too am one of the 1 in 4.