Let’s Talk…about Mental Illness

Today is Bell Canada’s “Let’s Talk” day, an annual mental illness and mental health awareness-raising initiative.

As some of my readers know, I work in the mental health field, specifically in workplace mental health. But I don’t just work in mental health, I actually believe in it.mental-illness-sketch_20110328091118

So what does mental health mean? According to the World Health Organization mental health is defined as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”.

Of course, this definition will vary depending on an individual’s professional and personal experience, but I do think the above definition captures the essence of mental health. We want to work well and be well at work. We want to contribute to our community (whether this community consists of friends and family or is much broader in scope) in a meaningful manner. We want to move through the trials and tribulations of life as best as we possibly we can, utilizing the resources we have available to us. We want to find peace (whatever your definition of peace may be) within our ever-changing and ever-busy lives.

But we must realize that mental health takes work and that sometimes some have to work harder than others to achieve mental health. Some of us are born with a different genetic code. Some of us are born into different families, within different cultures with varying norms and expectations. Some of us have experienced great trauma (and we must understand that “great trauma” can only be defined by the person who experiences it as we undeniably vary in our perception of life events). Some of us work in environments that are not only psychologically unsafe, but still remain physically unsafe.

We must appreciate that each and every one of us steps up to the plate with a different genetic code and life experience and that these differences have a huge impact on how we perceive, process, and handle certain life events. We must fundamentally understand that our lens is not the same as our co-worker’s, our partner’s or our best friend’s.

While I laud Bell’s campaign*, I also think their television advertising campaign somewhat perpetuates the stigma surrounding mental illness. The two commercials I’ve seen feature a mopey, isolated man in his living room and a counter-gripping, head-sagging woman calling in sick to work. While some people experiencing a mental illness may exhibit such symptoms at home, when completely alone, a large majority won’t. And they will likely not exhibit such symptoms at work or with friends. They’ll more than likely act like nothing is wrong – that things are, for the most part, pretty hunky dory.

This is what makes mental illness such a tricky and easily-misunderstood disease. We may assume a person experiencing depression will look sad or cry. We may assume a person experiencing anxiety will bite their nails and become easily agitated. We may assume a person who has a drinking addiction will show up to work drunk. We may assume a person with schizophrenia is going to become physically or verbally aggressive.

Our assumptions often interfere with our ability to truly “see”. We assume that the receptionist who cried today at work is depressed and miss the employee working overtime who’s experiencing Generalized Anxiety Disorder. In fact, they’re probably being applauded and encouraged. Guided by our assumptions, which are largely determined by various societal myths, we may (or may not) catch ourselves or hear others saying:

  • “Oh, Sally? She’s just crazy. Ignore her last email.”
  • “Dave’s been off for a few days now. Seriously, he should just suck it up.”
  • “He’s faking it.”
  • “She’s got Bipolar? She can’t possibly be productive at work.”
  • “How can she not cope with the stress of that job? I did it for 5 years without one issue.”

We (not all) may make these assumptions, but often fail to recognize statistics on mental illness. That almost 1 in 2 working Canadians are currently experiencing or have experienced a mental illness. That 500,000 Canadians miss work each day due to mental illness. That it knows no gender, race or age. That it can strike at any time, regardless of the situation. That one cannot simply “suck it up”. That one is likely not “faking it” to get out of work. Honestly, would you ask someone diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes to suck it up?

Mental illness affects our life whether we know it or not. More importantly, it affects our life whether we like it or not.

We’re all different. We all come with a different story. We all have a different perception of what’s “normal” and have varying abilities to “cope” with the demands of a job and life in general. Just because our “normal” dictates that someone should be able to work from 8 to 6 with a short lunch break and produce 3 presentations without getting stressed, does not mean that is or should be someone else’s normal. 

Challenging our own assumptions, challenging our “normal” will be difficult. I cannot promise doing so is going to be all reward. It’s not. It’s going to be an uphill, frustrating and potentially messy battle at times. And it should be noted that the workplace will likely face the greatest struggle as there remains considerable stigma embedded within that culture. But I’m not giving you an excuse, just a warning. A warning to help you better prepare for what’s to come when and if you decide to take part in this monumental paradigm shift.

Obviously this post has a workplace focus to it given my role at the Canadian Mental Health Association in Calgary, but I have a strong personal connection to mental illness. My maternal grandmother has Depression and has, from my understanding, her entire life and my paternal grandmother also had a mood disorder, likely Bipolar Affective Disorder. So mental illness definitely runs in my family. And like many other Canadians, I have close friends who have experienced or are currently experiencing a mental illness.

I’m proud to be a part of this mental health awareness-raising initiative. Removing stigma in its entirety would be ideal, but is not realistic. Like any movement, this will take time and will face much resistance. Cancer faced considerable stigma throughout the mid and late 20th century. Those with the disease often felt considerable shame and fear of disclosing to their boss or coworkers (even family and friends). Today, cancer campaigns surround us marking a monumental shift in how society views and accepts the disease. So let’s hope the mental health movement will parallel the cancer movement. In fact, I hope it can move more quickly due to social media and advertising campaigns such as Let’s Talk.

In closing, I believe the more we talk and begin to truly understand that each person has a unique way of perceiving, processing and dealing with situations, the better. I guess it fundamentally comes down to acceptance. And true acceptance will take much time, patience, and a considerable amount of energy and effort on the part of advocates for mental health.

Who’s an advocate? Anyone willing to talk and facilitate dialogue on mental illness and mental health. Anyone willing to speak out against stigma and strategize new and innovative ways to address it. Anyone willing to share their story. Anyone trying to make a meaningful and lasting difference within the lives of those experiencing mental illness.

Become an advocate for mental health. Talk. Share. Facilitate. Listen. But most importantly, accept.


*Please note that I honestly believe the pros of Bell’s campaign largely outweigh any cons.


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