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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Let's Talk

This January, Bell launched it's second annual "Let's Talk" campaign to address the stigma surrounding mental illness. Today is the program's official "Let's Talk Day".

The issue of stigma is of great concern because it creates shame and misunderstanding about mental illness and prevents many people from seeking help.

1-in-5 Canadians will experience mental illness at some point in their lives. At any given time, over 3 million Canadians are struggling with major depression!

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of fear surrounding mental illness, which tends to only be reinforced by the media. Coverage tends to focus on the extremist cases which has created the misconception that individuals struggling with mental illness are all unstable, violent, threatening and dangerous.

Just this week in Toronto we are hearing about the young man killed by police after leaving the Toronto East General Hospital wielding scissors. He reportedly stabbed someone prior to his confrontation with the police. Little is known, however, about the mental health status of this man at the time.

According to an article in the opinion section of the Star today, Toronto police officers received training last week, organized by the Toronto Police Services Board mental health subcommittee, to address the misperceptions the police have about "emotionally disturbed persons." That is a step in the right direction!

The Bell initiate is a 5-year multimillion dollar program providing support for mental health ventures across Canada. Today, Bell will donate 5 cents for every text message or long-distance call made on the Bell system to the program.

Canadian Olympic cyclist, Clara Hughes, is the spokesperson for the campaign, which is, perhaps why the story about the initiative was relegated to the front of the sports sections in both the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail today. A pity since, if like me, you tend to toss away the sports sections without a second glance, you'd miss it altogether. There are paid advertisements from Bell about it in the middle of the front sections of both paper, but again, I am sure like me, many people don't pay much attention to ads.

Fortunately, Canada AM did a story about the campaign this morning, and TSN broadcaster, Michael Landsberg's documentary about depression airs tonight on CTV at 7pm. In it, well known athletes share their stories about battling depression. I hope that this demonstrates to Canadians that depression and mental illness is not a sign of weakness or something to be feared or ashamed of, and encourages them to get help if they need it.

Even as someone who now works as a mental health professional, I understand the courage it takes to admit struggling with mental illness. I have battled anxiety, to various degrees, probably for most of my life. My mother said I began showing signs of anxiety when I was 3, when we moved to England for a year for my father's sabbatical at Cambridge University. My parents thought it was due to the stress of moving to a new environment. But it did not end when we returned from England.

What is fortunate for me, is that I was willing to seek help as a teenager when I was going through a particularly difficult period. I have sought counselling on and off ever since, when I have felt like I needed help. Mostly this has been in the form of psychotherapy, but I have also been on and off various anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications. Since my post-partum anxiety crisis after Little A was born, I have been taking Effexor, an anti-depressant that is very effective for treating anxiety, and it has changed my life. No more intrusive thoughts, no more insomnia, no more chronic worrying. If I have to be on it for the rest of my life, so be it. Yet even so, I am always fearful to disclose this fact when asked in various situations whether or not I take any medications. I do worry what people will think.

Why do I struggle with anxiety? Is it genetic? My mother is an anxious person. Is it a biological defect that throws my brain chemistry of kilter? Is it because we went to England when I was 3? Is it because I was brought up in a home with parents with exacting standards who put immense pressure on my brother and I to succeed?

Although there are still many questions that are yet to be answered about mental illness, a growing body of research supports the diathesis-stress model. Essentially, there is reciprocal causation involved. In other words, biology affects emotions, thoughts and behaviours, which affect our experiences, and our experiences can actually alter our biology. A person may have inherent vulnerabilities or risk factors, which combined with an environmental trigger, lead to the development of a mental illness.

For more information about the campaign visit: http://letstalk.bell.ca/en/

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