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.

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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