Examining the evolving dialogue of mental health.

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 According to Canada’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), 20 per cent of Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, while eight per cent of adults will experience depression once in their lifetime. Today mental illness is the number one cause of disability and premature death in Canada. In this day and age of full disclosure, we take a closer look at the mental health discourse.

What Is “Mental Illness”?

Dr. David Goldbloom, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and senior medical advisor at CAMH, defines mental illness as “a disruption in the way people think, act and feel. It’s a reflection of not only how our brain works but also the interconnection between the mind, the brain and the environment.” He points out that, just like cancer, mental illness can’t be confined to one category and should be seen exactly as it is: an illness of one’s mental state, that varies in scope in symptoms and severity.

Dr. Goldbloom emphasizes that “risk is not the same as destiny.” Similar to a cancer diagnosis, having a family history of mental illness increases your risk, but you aren’t destined to have that diagnosis. Certain traumas and circumstances could be a contributing factor to mental illness. And mental illness isn’t exclusive to a specific social standing. “Unemployment, homelessness and trauma increase the risk,” Dr. Goldbloom notes, “but we know that people living in comfortable circumstances and under no particular stress can also have mental illness.”

The Diagnosis

In 2000, right after Thanksgiving at the age of 16, Amanpreet Dhami (editor-in-chief of Elevate Magazine) was diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder. She was meds-free for five years until she had a nervous breakdown and a relapse in June 2012. The telltale signs were there: “As an adult, I was stubborn and ignored [them].” The idea of taking meds again “felt like it was a step back for me” she says.

Untreated and enhanced by personal career issues and the stress of having a sick father, it was all too much, and her house of cards started to cave in. It took her too long to get ready in the morning, and she lacked concentration for simple jobs, such as sending out an email. “I would be unable to concentrate on finishing the task and, before you knew it, I would forget what I was doing.” All of this was a backdrop to her endless bouts of tears. “Everything made me cry,” she says. Her sudden obsession with the daily minutiae of life took its toll. After her diagnosis (she was 28 at the time), she thought her future functioning looked grim. “I was convinced I was going to live with the anxiety and depression at that severity for the rest of my life,” she says.

But then she took action. Along with proper meds and, more importantly, access to a solid support system, Dhami has been able to move past her diagnosis and maintain her mental health, emphasizing that her success was due to a combination of medication and proper counseling. “Without counselling, I don’t think the medications would have been sufficient,” she notes. “For me, working out emotions and events I had tried to push aside and reliving experiences that had inflicted trauma on me that I had never dealt with was essential.” For her, being able to talk proved invaluable.

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Tearing Down the Taboo Wall

When Mary Deacon was approached by Bell Media to create an initiative to raise awareness for mental health, she knew that it was a long time coming. She recognized that, historically, mental health issues never got their fair share of the spotlight and that “it was time for a Canadian corporation to step up.” In 2010 the Bell Let’s Talk movement was conceived. Founded on four pillars—anti-stigma, action, research, and workplace best practices, the Bell Let’s Talk centred around the stigmatized attitude towards
mental illness.

By using the social media platform and powerful PSAs, Deacon was able to move the discussion from hushed tones behind closed doors to the exposed online world. She understood that, by using the power of social media, the conversation could grow organically. “People were saying ‘I want to be part of the change,’ whether it’s companies, individuals, celebrities or political leaders. Everyone was involved and saying something about [mental health].”

Bell Let’s Talk Day resulted in 122 million tweets, texts, calls and social media shares. In 2015, it was the top trending topic on Twitter (#BellLetsTalk) globally and raised more than CA$6.0 million for mental health initiatives. (To see it's more recent impact and a breakdown of where the funds go to, click here.)

The “Talk”

For Queen’s University Dr. Heather Stuart, a simple phone call would be life changing. It was Mary Deacon. “She asked me why there aren’t any [research] chairs focusing on mental health,” Stuart reminisced. “I told her because there’s no money.” Fast-forward three years and, in 2012, Dr. Stuart became the Bell Canada Mental Health and Anti Stigma Research Chair at Queen’s University, focusing on various anti-stigma research projects. It is the first of it’s kind in North America.

Two principles steer the movement: first, working towards discovering what anti-stigma programs work and why to use that knowledge to build effective “tool kits” with public access to programs, second, speaking engagement, as Stuart calls it, her “from gown to town” philosophy.

Due to the increased awareness, Stuart is now an in-demand speaker at various conferences, bringing her mental health research to the medical masses. It is academic awareness that she says didn’t exist in the recent past. As co-founder of the scientific section of the World Psychiatric Association, Stuart noted that in 2005, there wasn’t a dedicated space for examining mental health issues. “We didn’t really have a network of scientists working in this community,” she says. “Now we have a scientific network, and we have international conferences,” noting that her latest conference in San Francisco had more than 850 attendees.

This important discussion continues to evolve, along with increased awareness and appreciation of the value of a true comfort zone. All of this hasn’t gone unnoticed by Dr. Goldbloom. “[Mental health] is now on the agenda of all political parties in the way that it never was before. It’s in the public conscience in a way it never was before, and public support for institutions that provide care for those with mental illness has increased. Media has shown a markedly increased interest in the whole area of mental illness. It’s one of the major social transitions of our time.”

To show your support for Bell Let's Talk Day and help raise funds for mental health initiatives, use the hashtag #BellLetsTalk on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook on January 25, 2017. Texts and calls will also help raise funds if Bell is your mobile provider, so give someone you love a text or call to show you care. (For iPhone users, remember to turn off iMessage so all of your texts count!)