What happens when you are checkmated and trapped? The American Heritage Dictionary defines checkmate as “to attack…in such a manner that no escape or defense is possible, thus ending the game” and “to defeat completely”. In life, we all go through moments of mental defeat, where no escape from one’s own crippling thoughts or any form of defense is possible, but some of us go through months, years and even a lifetime of mental duress...sometimes even ending the game early.
For some, Canadians living with a mental illness, getting through the day without feelings of depression or suicidal thoughts is a good day and part of their daily life struggle. It is comparable to having all pawns manoeuvre through the board to be crowned Queen – difficult to accomplish! According to Dr. David Goldbloom (vice-chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada), who was interviewed by the Globe and Mail , one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness in his or her lifetime.
Mental illnesses range from anxiety disorder to schizophrenia, and include obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, and bipolar disorder. You would never know by just looking at individuals with mental health disorders, that some of them have intense or intricate rituals that they must perform each day in their struggle to survive and function as part of society. Most are not the stereotypical insane, psychiatric hospital/asylum-bent characters that movies, especially of the past, portray. However, this is part of the stigma attached to mental illness and its many manifestations which work to promote people with mental illnesses to feel embarrassment, shame and isolation.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho, Hitchcock portrays the psychologically ill character Norman Bates as a complex of innocence and danger, demonstrating that opposite human tendencies unite to form a single, complex whole. So although the audience could relate and empathize with Bates despite his initially disguised mental illness, the portrayal of him as a psychotic killer with dual personalities is the image of mental health disorder that is left resonating with the public.
Mental health is a pervasive presence in almost all of our lives, and yet it is rarely spoken of. According to Dr. Goldbloom, the negative stigma attached to mental illness fuels a “reluctance to talk about it, acknowledge it openly, and treat it as a form of human suffering like any other illness.” He believes that this reluctance “relates in part to how threatening this set of illnesses is to our sense of who we are.”
One need not look very far, however, to see that people affected by mental health disorders are no different from you or I; they just have additional barriers and life challenges. People affected could be anyone from your parents, siblings, relatives, friends, co-workers, partner or even yourself. Most people I know who have a mental health disorder go through their life with flair, intelligence and finesse. As Dr. Goldbloom points out, “when mental illness hits…it does not discriminate on the basis of intelligence.”
Even though mental health and wellness is a topic that is coming more into light with the government, select agencies, celebrities and athletes such as Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson and former Montreal Canadiens legend Guy Lafleur, stigma surrounding mental illness still dominates this topic. This is becoming increasingly apparent in the Canadian workplace. From Dr. Goldbloom’s travels across Canada and the United States, where he gives talks about mental health disorders, he believes that “people are ultimately concerned about the same things: themselves and the people they care about in their immediate sphere, and the barriers they face”. He acknowledges that “data now shows us that in the Canadian public sector and in the Canadian private sector, (mental disorders) are the leading causes of short-term disability” and that “it has a profound economic impact on the workplace.” He believes that it is not only a “compassionate response” for businesses to understand this set of issues better but that it is also in the company’s “enlightened self-interest” to do so.
The most distinguishing characteristic of mental health disorders is that mental illness most often hits people in their prime, creating a substantial disruption in their lives. As Dr. Goldbloom explains, “when you think of the other sets of illnesses that we have championed as a nation, whether it is heart and stroke or cancer or dementia, these hit…a different age group than the people who are affected by mental illness.” Most mental illness has its onset in late adolescence and early adulthood, “just as people are coming into their own personal identities, their work identities, (and) starting to form long-lasting relationships at an adult level”.
Illustration by Suranika Dias
The World Health Organization predicts that by the year 2020 depression will become the number two cause worldwide of years lost due to disability . Dr. Goldbloom reiterates, “that is a profound impact. A large, palpable, expensive set of human problems has been neglected far longer than any other set of problems in the context of the health of Canadians”.
Canada and Canadians need to do something, and do something now! It is the only G8 country that lacks a national mental-health strategy. The goal is to have a strategy that actually generates action. This is what the Mental Health Commission of Canada hopes to accomplish. Hopefully, Canada can learn from the successes and failures of other countries, such as the Netherlands and New Zealand, who have strategies in place for people with disabilities including mental health disorders, and borrow effective tangible polices to generate appropriate actions.
To break past the barriers, unveil the truth behind the stigma and expose myths behind mental health disorders, we, as individuals of all nations and countries, need to take action. Do not hide behind a disguise and do not be afraid to talk about your mental health disorder, after all, the more it is exposed, the sooner it will be accepted, and the more the acceptance, the sooner the proper attention can be given to this topic. And, hopefully, something can be done to adopt the appropriate policies and strategies to combat it.
So, how can you help? You can start by checking out the local organizations in your community. In Ottawa, the organizations that are active in mental health and wellness advocacy that you could help by contributing your time and/or funds to, include: The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), Mood Disorders Ottawa (MDO), Psychiatric Survivors of Ottawa (PSO), and the Mental Health Crisis Line. The Ottawa Chapter of the CMHA has the “Open Minds / Esprit Ouvert” program that has Canadians living with mental health disorders deliver presentations to high school students about mental health in order to reduce stigma, increase understanding and to provide the students with resources in the community. Spreading the word early is important. Also, next time you see someone you may think is a little “off” on the street or bus, do not be so quick to judge, dismiss or be rude to them, just realize that they too have their own human struggles to deal with.
And if you suffer from a mental illness, remember, like so many other illnesses, a cure is possible and mental health illnesses are no different. Refuse to be checkmated. Play on!