Esprit de Corps Magazine: Time for a National Dialogue on Mental Health


Esprit de Corps Magazine
By Hon. John McKay M.P.
Published November 2012, Volume 19, Issue 10

On the occasion of Mental Health Awareness Week, October 1, 2012

“At times I could barely get moving through the day, and found talking to anyone difficult… I was paralyzed by self-doubt, cold sweats, and no reassurances of friends and family could convince me that I had much self-worth or hope for the future.”

Those who have suffered from a mental illness or who have shared the experience of it with a friend or family member know how difficult it is for a sufferer to make an admission like the one above. Despite the fact that 20% of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetimes, it is still a difficult subject for many people to talk about.

When my friend and colleague Bob Rae wrote the above words about his experience it was a courageous step toward in furthering a national discussion about mental health which is long overdue in Canada.

Mental illness affects people of all ages, educational levels, incomes, and cultures. Winston Churchill called it the “black dog,” his term for the depression that afflicted him throughout his life. Abraham Lincoln suffered periods of severe and debilitating “melancholy;” what would today be called clinical depression.

In Canada, 8% of adults will experience a major depression in their lifetimes and 12% will experience some form of anxiety disorder. 20% of these sufferers will have a substance abuse problem. Severe mental illness is a major contributor to homelessness and estimates of the cost of mental illness to our economy has been estimated at $50 billion per year. Most tragic of all, suicide accounts for 24% of deaths among 15-24 year olds.

Despite these statistics, only one-third of those in need of mental health services will access them and 71% of family physicians in Ontario ranked access to psychiatrists as fair to poor. While mental illnesses constitute more than 15% of the burden of disease in Canada, they receive only 7% of health care dollars.

Fortunately, mental health issues have increasingly become part the national consciousness. The work of leaders like Bob Rae and retired Lieutenant General now Senator Roméo Dallaire, who suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after witnessing the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, has helped bring this topic to the fore. In addition, our country’s experience in Afghanistan has made it clear that more must be done to address mental health issues.

With Canada’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan coming to a close as many as 13% of Canadian Forces personnel are returning with some form of Operational Stress Injury (OSI), according to one Department of Defence report (some would argue that the numbers are even higher). These can include PTSD, depression, problems with addiction, and the list goes on.

Given the extraordinary debt owed to Canada’s men and women in uniform, raising awareness about the need for expanded mental health treatment is of the utmost importance. In the case of PTSD, symptoms can appear months or years after military service and sufferers may not realize they have an OSI until the symptoms have become severe.

These invisible wounds can compromise a soldier or veteran’s personal, work and family life, and far too often they suffer in silence.
Thankfully, at places like the University of British Columbia’s Veteran’s Transition Program, which I was fortunate to visit in September, remarkable progress is being made in learning how to treat soldiers and vets suffering from these injuries. Funded by the Royal Canadian Legion, True Patriot Love and Wounded Warriors foundations and headed by UBC’s Dr. Marvin Westwood, the program addresses the complexity of trauma that our soldiers have experienced and attempts to bridge transition from conflict zones to everyday society.

However, much more needs to be done not just for the Canadian Forces but for all Canadians who have suffered from a mental illness.
National leaders and people in positions of authority need to do three things: one, we must continue to raise awareness about the facts of mental illness in our society; two, we must begin to break down the stigmas that surround mental illness; and three, expanded access to treatment must be made available to Canadians, especially to groups at a higher risk like youth and the Canadian Forces.

Firstly, this week is Mental Health Awareness Week, sponsored by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health. This is an excellent opportunity for public figures, community leaders, members of the Canadian Forces, and many others to share their stories of dealing with a mental health issue to build awareness and understanding of the problem.

Second, the stigmas surrounding mental illnesses must be broken down. Sufferers must be encouraged by those willing to share their stories that acknowledging a mental health issue and asking for help will be applauded and that there will be people around them in their family, community, clinics, all the way up to Parliament and provincial legislatures, who will stand with them and support them. Stigma is a cultural issue and requires a culture shift.

Finally, as a nation we must engage in a national dialogue about how to expand access to treatment and improve the services offered to those in need. Again, this is discussion that is long overdue.

Without exception, each one of us has either experienced a mental health issue or we know someone who has. It may be a family member, a friend, a colleague or someone we have passed by many times who is living on the street. We owe it to them and to ourselves to bring this issue into the forefront of our national dialogue.

John McKay is the Liberal Member of Parliament for Scarborough-Guildwood and the Critic for Defence for the Liberal Party of Canada.