All of my life there were moments.
I remember the classmate in Grade One who went to the principal’s office for “bad behavior” almost every day. The teenager, known as “the loner”, who often crouched on the ground holding onto his knees, rocking back and forth while the rest of the kids played at the park. On residence council in university, I remember supporting students during Orientation Week having a particularly tough time with their first move away from home. In my early career years in government, I remember being on the frontlines in a Member of Parliament’s office where many “regulars” would drop in with chronic dilemmas looking for some form of human connection each day. There were, of course, several people close to me – friends, family, and neighbours – who were also struggling with something they couldn’t talk about. And those whose lives ended too soon, their memorials finally exposing that they had been suffering in silence for too long.
All of these stories have common threads – they speak to societal attitudes toward mental illness. The pervasiveness of stigma and the silence that it breeds. The isolation and lack of supports in our schools and workplaces. The deeply rooted prejudice and discrimination that has led to the marginalization of citizens and lack of supports.
When I first walked through the doors of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) a decade ago, I’m ashamed to say that none of these stories came to mind. I thought, like many do, that mental illness was something that affected other people, not me.
Stigma had successfully buried these stories about the people in my life, rendering them invisible.
Over the past few years, we have made much progress. We talk about mental health more openly, and government, private sector and philanthropy are making important investments. People with lived experience are telling their stories, shining a light on the issues like never before.
But, the fact of the matter is all of the stories I knew of 30 years ago are just as true today. Too many people and too much suffering still remain invisible. If we have made so many gains, why is so much still missing?
This year, CAMH embarked on a new advocacy campaign called Mental Health is Health – a call for action to treat our heads like we do our hearts, to abandon judgment and treat mental illness as illness. It’s a simple idea – and yet a giant leap forward. Imagine if addiction was treated as a health issue instead of a criminal one. What if your annual check-up included a mental health assessment? What if treatments for depression were publicly funded and accessible? What if we funded mental health like we do other life-threatening illnesses like heart disease and cancer?
I don’t know what ever happened to the classmate with the bad behaviour or the teenage loner. And I can’t bring back those whose lives were cut far too short. But, I do know that if this simple idea could become a reality, we could change the trajectory of future lives. And those stories would be about lives lived. Mental Health IS Health. Period.