I thought a lot about the topic I would cover this week. The open topic challenge was to get up the guts and talk about that thing that we all avoid talking about. That controversial issue that sits there, right near the surface, that people hesitate to go into.
For me, that topic is mental health. Now, I guess I am cheating a little, cause I have talked about mental health before, in reference to my struggles with anxiety. It is not a totally forbidden topic for me. And in the general societal discourse- the topic is coming up more and more.
None the less, it is by far the topic I wish more people talked about. A lot more.
But I am not sure my take on it is controversial. I feel that I am just joining a chorus of voices that really want to bring this topic into our everyday conversation.
For example, I was really excited to see this campaign from Bell:
People are beginning to talk. This is not at all because of just Bell or any other one group, company or individual. It is all those voices adding up. I see it as a good sign.
So what do I wish people would realize and really talk about?
You see, I really think we see mental health issues as something that ‘those people’ have. We think of individuals on the extreme end of living with mental illness. The very visible illnesses: Bi-Polar, Schizophrenia, Obsessive compulsive disorder, ect. And we think of people who are very obviously at the point of not functioning the same way in society as we would.
The problem I have with this is that I truly believe that mental illness works on a bell curve. (no Bell pun intended) ‘They’ say that 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 Canadians experience an episode of mental illness within their lifetime. I disagree. I would suspect that number is much higher. Just like the vast major of people experience some form of physical illness within their life time, I suspect the vast majority of people experience some form of mental illness. I would rather say that the frequency, severity and duration of those episodes puts almost all of us somewhere on a big bell curve, with very mentally well and very mentally unwell on either end of the curve.
Not only that, I would argue that most of us travel back and forth along the curve at different points in our life. Sometimes we are more mentally well and other times we are more mentally unwell.
I think a lot of the conversation has been focused on the extreme. And FOR SURE, there are a lot people with severe mental illness that need support. When you look at the issue of homelessness and poverty, the issues of mental illness and addiction are so intertwined that obviously the lack of focus on mental health in our society is having a devastating impact. But I think this image of mental illness is misleading and tends to dismiss just how wide spread we are all effected by mental health issues. So I wish we would see ourselves as all having the very real potential of becoming mentally unwell, just as we all face the very real potential of becoming physically unwell. When we see mental health as something that is an important part of all of our lives that is when we will really start acknowledging it and talking about it.
I get that we humans have a evolutionary left over instinct to ‘not show our weakness’.. its why so many people don’t like going to the doctor or the dentist… we think it means we will be kicked out of the tribe or left behind. That ‘your pack is only as strong as its weakest member’ mentality… which I guess makes sense when you are trying to get away from cheetahs or something. Regardless, if we want to really enable people to lead the most mentally healthy lives they can, it starts with recognizing just how pervasive mental illness is.
Think of all the stress we have in our lives. The pressure. The balancing of responsibilities and priorities and time lines. It is just plain hard to always have the mental fortitude to deal with those things without that starting to have an impact on ones mental wellness. And the connection between the mental and the physical runs very very deep. I wonder what the physical health of a mentally well society would look like.
That is the awareness piece. The other piece for me is the health care piece. IF mental health and physical health are as intertwined as I believe them to be (and I don’t just believe this cause I do, I have read this often.. I just can’t remember where to find a good source to send you all too) THEN why isn’t there more integration of physical and mental health in our health care system?
The answer to this question is really that our system treats symptoms, not causes. For the most part. Which is why so many people are on medication for mental health issues. Because it is easier to treat the symptoms then it is to set up a system that deals with the causes. And particularly when it comes to mental health, the causes are not something that the health care system can entirely impact. To achieve a mentally healthy society, we would need to look at our lives holistically– our work places, our homes, our recreation, our food, our communities, ect. Though I believe our health care system could play a much better role.
Some parts of the system are now moving in this direction. I know my doctor has special appointments with her and a mental health professional that her patients can sign up for… though there is very limited space in this program. But it does seem that parts of our health care system are recognizing the need. It just needs to go further. Doctors need to be more aware of mental illness and the connection to physical illness. And the path to treatment needs to be easy to navigate.. especially because mental illness often impacts ones motivation and fortitude to navigate the very complex system.
But most of all we need to talk about it.