Mental Illness – It’s Not Talked About

Anti_Stigmatization.jpgAre you reading this at work during your lunch break? Has anyone come into the lunchroom to tell you about the cold they had lately, or their children’s chicken pox, or their aging father’s hip replacement?

I bet this happens quite a bit. Just about everyone talks about these maladies, small and large, fleeting or chronic.

When’s the last time you tossed a “How ya doin’?” at a co-worker, and instead of talking about that flu that just doesn’t seem to go away, she mentioned casually, “Ah, well, I’m going through another depression, don’t you just hate that?”

Now I bet that this has just about never happened to you. And if it did, chances are you’d be startled and wouldn’t know what to say.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, in Canada, one in five of us will experience a mental health problem during our lifetime. One in eight will be hospitalized due to a mental illness. A University of Toronto study in 2004 estimated that 8%, or one out of twelve employees, were dealing with diagnosable mental health issues. (Note: while this is written from a Canadian perspective, very similar statistics hold true for the U.S.)

That means that if you, like the average Canadian, work at a place that employs 45 employees, between three and four are likely to be struggling with issues such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or an eating disorder.

In other words, mental illness is not uncommon.

So why does nobody talk about it?

Most of us know very little about mental illness, and ignorance breeds fear. Fear breeds avoidance. Avoidance breeds more ignorance. It’s a vicious cycle. And vicious cycles breed more vicious cycles: The ignorance that prevents us from learning more about mental illness does not only create more fear and avoidance in us, but also prevents people who have a mental illness from talking about it. This makes them more afraid, and therefore more prone to isolate from people who they feel don’t understand them – and that exacerbates the symptoms of mental illness.

Some think that it is not the mental illness itself that creates suffering but how we think about it and react to it. There is a difference between pain and suffering. Pain is the immediate feeling of dis-ease in the body or mind, our neurons firing in such a way as to tell us that there is something wrong, that we must pay attention and react to set things right. Suffering comes in the aftermath of immediate pain, or in the anticipation of pain.

Here’s an example. Have you stubbed your toe lately? It really hurts, doesn’t it? The pain is intense, it lasts for a minute or so, and then it’s over, and you completely forget about it. If you can, you move the obstacle that made you stub your toe. Period. That’s acute pain. Now compare that to, say, an abscessed tooth. The pain itself is probably not as intense as the stubbed toe. But it doesn’t go away. You don’t really want to eat anything. When you reach the point where you’re so grouchy that you snap at your spouse, and when the pain gets so insistent that you’re ready to sell your Grandmother’s soul to make it go away, that’s the beginning of suffering. It’s the emotional reaction to the pain.

Most mental “pain” is like the abscessed tooth. It can quickly tip over into suffering. Can you imagine having an abscessed tooth but you can’t really tell anyone that’s why you need a day off and you’re expected to munch on the peanuts that everyone else is eating (because nobody is supposed to have problems with their teeth)? Would that make you feel angry, inferior, isolated? That is suffering, it’s not pain. And that’s what happens to the close to two million Canadian workers who experience mental illness.

When our co-workers suffer, it’ll eventually impact all of us. It definitely impacts the bottom-line: A recent estimate of the cost of mental illness in Canada was set at $16 billion. The cost has only increased since then.

If you want to be on the forefront of those who want to stop the viscous cycle around mental health, all you have to do is inform yourself. The Canadian Mental Health Association, the Government of British Columbia site on mental health or Mental Health Works might be a place to start.

  • Puddlejumper


    I really loved this article.

    I recently gave up work due to bipolar and actually popped in to to my old workplace today just to say hi,

    I’ve been very fortunate in that my colleagues have in the most part been supportive and I tend to use humour to “help them” deal with my answer to the inevitable “so how are you?”

    But I wish I had been able to feel more open about it BEFORE I had my breakdown.

    Funnily enough the more I am open with my diagnosis with people the more I have found they open up in turn about their own mental health.

    We should all feel able to talk about these things. I hope over the years the stigma lessens.

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  • Fantastic article. It still never ceases to amaze me how blind we are to stigma in our society. Literally everyone in a westernised society feels anxiety, depression, undue stress etc etc at some point in their lives. Why oh why are we so scared to talk about it. I must admit that I still shy away from talking about the anxiety I felt in my youth and in my twenties, but this has inspired me to be more open about it.


  • This is a great article. After finally getting diagnosed and treated for a mental health disorder, and helping some family members do the same, I came to a realization: there’s no more reason to expect to go through one’s entire life without experiencing some mental illness than to expect to go through life without physical illness. I think if bouts or degrees of mental illness were seen as the norm, not the exception, we’d all be more likely to get the help we need.

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  • SRH

    The constant cycle that continues to keep mental illness in the shadows seems to be hopelessly true. Many years ago people were thought of as a disgrace to their family and community and were often sent away to insane asylums where they were mistreated, drugged, and dehumanized. Even today things have not changed much. The mentally ill are often abandoned, victimized, jailed, and/or left homeless. This is due to the lack of understanding of their situation and how to best accommodate those with mental illnesses as well as an inability to put ourselves out there as selfless beings in order to improve ourselves as a whole. As this blog states, the predominance of these disorders is evident in the statistics shown, and those alone should be enough to at least get people thinking and talking about our situation with mental illness.

  • I’ve battled depression most of my life and in the past 5 years have simply “come out of the closet”. When people ask, if my drugs aren’t doin’ it for me that day, they get a pretty brutally honest answer. Takes some back a bit but not as many as I thought. Most people just ask a little about it since it’s obvious it doesn’t bother me to talk about it and things are great after that. When they ask “how ya doin'” I give them an honest answer.

    The only ones I’m not honest with is my family. My parents think depression is a whiner’s disease. They love me but just don’t understand. So I keep away from the topic with them.

  • uakari

    Nice article. It has a lot to do with my experience as a mental patient. I would like to expose my personal conduct on this issue.

    I have been a consumer of the mental health industry/services since the age of 14 (I am 20 now), when a psychiatrist diagnosed me with what he called “schizophrenia”. I have been administered a variety of psychotropic drugs ever since. The reccommendation I got from all the shrinks I consulted was to never mention anything related to my condition to anyone except for a few selected relatives.

    I initially followed their advice, but reverse psychology gradually transformed this prohibition into a great temptation. I now practice the complete opposite conduct. It generates a small amount of gossip around my character, I suspect, and inhibits interactions with a few individuals (their initiative, not mine). But I have not entered public disgrace. I feel quite ok with my level interaction with other humans. Plus, my eccentric manners sometimes elicit attention in such a way that the fact that I take psychotropic medication does not evoke too many surprise.

    A funny episode happened when a schoolmate asked me if I ‘was like, “psycho”‘. I said ‘hmm what do you mean… I take anti-psychotics, I dunno if that would mean I’m a “psycho”‘. He got surprised, and asked “but like, when you take it do you get all nuts, see dragons, swords and stuff…”. ‘That’s when I DON’T take it’, I said. Everyone around started laughing, I was a bit embarrassed but laughed too, and my schoolmate apologized saying he “was just asking” and I said it was okay. I don’t think he was wrong, nor the people who laughed at the whole situation. I would probably behave similarly if I hadn’t developed mental ilness.

    I have been discriminated at times, other times I even bragged about my condition to a group of LSD (and other drugs) users by saying that they had to pay a lot of dough just to get sensations I can feel for free. In that respect, I was superior.

    Overall, I am sort of a licensed lunatic in my school, besides being able to interact meaninfully with people at certain times (i.e, sometimes my opinions are taken for serious, it all depends on the way I display my attitude). I really have a lot more to say about this, but it’s getting a bit too long. I don’t mean to imply that this advice given by most shrinks is unfounded. In certain cases, it might protect the individual from serious cases of profesional or social discrimination.

    I just decided to live my life this way. It’s a choice: either hide part of your true self for fear of other people’s irrational judgements (and which might harm you in certain cases) or live more connected to the truth. I chose the latter option.

    • I think that you sound very intelligent and it’s obvious that you have a great sense of humor. I hope that people at your school generally treat you with respect. It sounds like they aren’t too bad. People can be very cruel sometimes when they don’t understand what someone’s going through. Good on you for educating them!

Isabella Mori

Isabella Mori is a psychotherapist in private practice in Vancouver. She has been working in the field of mental health, counseling, psychotherapy and movement therapy for 18 years.

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