Sunday, February 5, 2012

Let's talk about mental illness


It isn’t easy to talk about mental illness. It’s a subject many people feel uncomfortable discussing and prefer to avoid. Talking about it reminds us of our vulnerabilities and evokes some of our deepest fears and prejudices. Frankly, it makes us squirm. We would like to sweep the problem under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exit – but we can’t!

The mentally ill are with us every day, suffering a torment that is just as real and just as painful as physical illness. The difference is that it is not as visible as a physical disease or a disability. Although you can clearly see a cane or a wheelchair or a prosthetic device, you cannot see the anguish that goes on inside someone’s head. This is the brutal reality that the mentally ill and their families have to live with constantly. This is why mental illness is the cruellest of illnesses and extremely stressful for all concerned.

The late Christopher Reeve was a passionate champion for those suffering with spinal cord injuries and Michael J. Fox is a tireless advocate on behalf of the victims of Parkinson’s disease. Although these two actors have been courageous and outspoken, it must be remembered that non-celebrities have also stepped up to the plate. Think of Canada’s Terry Fox and his run for cancer research or Canada’s Rick Hansen and his support of spinal cord injury research.  The aforementioned heroes have all raised awareness and collected funds to combat debilitating physical illnesses, but what about mental illnesses? Who will be the champion of the mentally ill?

Yes, we’ve come a long way, baby, when it comes to mental illness. We have better medication to control mental disease and better facilities for the mentally ill. Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go and the main obstacle remains society’s attitude toward mental disease. Just as the physically disabled continue to face prejudice and misunderstanding, so do the mentally disabled. There is still a stigma attached to both illnesses.

Nevertheless, public attitudes have improved, particularly toward the physically disabled. Gone are the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States. When Roosevelt became paralyzed after contracting polio in 1921, his disability was considered an embarrassment, a sign of weakness. Photographs of FDR in his wheelchair are rare because he was careful not to appear publicly in it. In fact, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library has only three photos of the former president in a wheelchair.

Rare photo of FDR in wheelchair with his granddaughter and dog Fala

In public, Roosevelt wore heavy leg braces and supported himself with a cane. Many people were unaware during his lifetime that FDR used a wheelchair in private. Such deception would not be necessary if Roosevelt were alive today. On the surface, we are much more enlightened. Prejudice and unenlightened attitudes toward the physically disabled still exist, of course, but they are far more subtle and more insidious. In the case of mental illness, great deal of fear and misconception remains. For example, some people erroneously believe that schizophrenics have a Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde split personality.

It is easier to cheer for someone with a physical disability. You can visualize it. You can see a valiant Terry Fox limping bravely with one leg. You can see Michael J. Fox speaking out about Parkinson’s disease as his body shakes. Their struggle is clearly and overtly visible. The mentally ill face a constant inner struggle that is often nightmarish and tortuous.  It must be emphasized, however, that mental illness is different from the usual stress and difficulties that everyone encounters for time to time.

Some celebrities and well-known personalities have been open about their struggles with mental illness. Actress Patty Duke and Margaret Trudeau, ex-wife of the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, come to mind. Catherine Zeta-Jones has also revealed that she is battling bipolar disorder.

Yet when was last time you saw a mentally ill person portrayed in a positive way on a television program or in a film? At the moment, I cannot think of an example. That is why I have written this. I want to raise awareness to the plight of the mentally ill because 20% of Canadians will experience mental illness during their lifetime - regardless of ethnic background, education and socioeconomic status.  It's time we talked about it and this is my way of stepping up to the plate. 

- Joanne

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this Joanne. I think you've hit a home-run here.
    I agree completely that there needs to be more exposure in the media to allow people to become more familiar with mental illness in general. I think it's pretty phenomenal how the people that you mentioned, and others featured in CAMH's campaign to raise awareness, have come forward.
    With regards to your comments surrounding representations in film and television, I struggle to think of characters who have an issue, be it parkinson's, cancer or mental illness where the 'disease' is not the focus of the narrative. Rarely do we see a character, who has cancer, deals with it, but it is of little consequence to the story and does not drive the plot. Even something as commonly understood as a broken leg is integral to "Rear Window"'s story.
    Thus, it seems to me, that real people, with real problems, coming forward and saying that the problem exists, I struggle with it, but it does not define me, is the key to overcoming stigma.
    Kay Redfield Jamison's memoir, 'An Unquiet Mind', is in my opinion, an excellent starting point in understanding the illness, how someone deals with it, and how the illness is nothing more than that person's 'thing' - and everybody's got a 'thing'.
    Thank you again.