Canadians are more willing to say they’ve been diagnosed with cancer than with depression.
Communications giant Bell Canada hopes to change that with a special campaign today aimed at getting people to talk about their mental health issues.
Its recruited six-time Canadian Olympic medalist Clara Hughes to help get the message out.
In a 32-second TV commercial, Hughes tells how she’s battled depression. That makes her one of the one in five Canadians who are affected by mental illness, many of whom never get help because they don’t tell anyone their problems.
At the end the ad, Hughes flashes a big smile and says: “So on February 8th, let’s talk.”
As part of the campaign, Bell says it’s going to give five cents to mental health programs for every text message and long distance phone call made today.
This year it’s also going to give five cents for every retweet of the campaign’s message.
When it first ran the campaign in 2011, Bell broke its phone-traffic record, which was set when hockey player Sidney Crosby scored the winning goal in the 2010 Olympics. In year one there were 66,079,236 text messages sent and $3,303,961.80 worth of long distance calls made.
This year Bell wants to raise at least $1 million more than that.
But why is it that Canadians need a five-cent incentive to start a conversation about mental illness?
Yukon College psychology instructor Dr. Robert McClelland says it’s because of the stigma that accompanies mental illness.
“We have a lot of terms that we use in a derogatory manner, such as ‘you’re crazy’ or ‘that’s insane,’” he said. “Those sort of terminologies are carry-overs from that attitude of there’s really something wrong with the individual.”
There’s also the idea, particularly with depression, that mental illness is a weakness, he said.
And there’s the stigma that mental illnesses are “all in your head” and simply thinking good thoughts could help you “get over it,” McClelland added.
But that would be like telling someone with diabetes to think sugary thoughts instead of administering their shots of insulin, he said.
And there’s the fear.
“Because of the lack of knowledge and the ignorance, we see it as a fear,” McClelland said. “Both in terms of being afraid of the individual but also our own fears that this could be something that we may end up getting or being prone to. These all stem from an attitude of not being aware of mental health and mental illness that goes with it.”
It is precisely because these stigmas are rooted in a lack of knowledge and awareness that talking about mental health can actually help, he said.
“Once we’re more aware, we’re often more acceptant of individuals that have differences or other problems than what we have,” he said.
“As we build the understanding, we build the supports. We’ve got to accept people the way they are and who they are and recognize the humanity in them.”
Talking about mental illness also connotes talking about the ways to treat or help with the illnesses.
Seasonal affective disorder is a case in point.
The “winter blues,” as it is called, is common and so to are discussions about it.
This discussion has helped spread awareness, not just of the disorder and its symptoms, but of how to treat it, McClelland said.
The sale of “sun” lamps during winter is proof of that.
Talking about more complex mental illness is taking a little bit longer to catch on, but it is, he said.
For example, high schools are much more aware of the prevalence of depression in teenagers now than they were years ago, he said.
And since the 1960s, the entire realm of mental health has shifted focus from illness to health, he said.
When it was on illness, people who were suffering from it were segregated in mental institutes or insane asylums. They were subject to inhumane procedures and other abuses.
But when it refocused on health, the asylums were closed and they started looking at the individual and their needs, he said. It also aimed at helping people with their overall health - physical and mental - rather than just being reactive to incidents or outbursts.
It is still a new method but it’s an area where the Yukon tends to run in the middle of the pack and maybe even slightly ahead, said McClelland.
The territory has a smaller population, with enough resources to go around and a strong sense of community and that all helps to build that acceptance and support needed to deal with mental health, he said.
The territory doesn’t have a mental institution and that’s not a bad thing, he said. Most people with mental illness can function quite well in society if they have the proper support.
The support can be anything from assisted living, to group homes, to a supportive friend or family member.
But the territory can always do more, he said.
The First Nations’ influence on Yukon society may also play a part in its success in mental health awareness, McClelland said.
“The tendency among First Nations was to have a different attitude towards mental illness than what might have been the traditional European model with its asylums and different beliefs,” he said. “I think there’s a bit more acceptance and also the sense of community. Individuals that have mental illnesses are a part of the community and are supported better.”
But until the stigmas around mental illnesses are cleared out, it will take courage for people to speak up. And for the most part, it is people who have been affected by mental illness that have to start the conversation, said McClelland.
Hearing someone simply talk about their own experience can do a lot.
Generally, people don’t seek out information until they have to. But just going by the statistics, it’s pretty hard to find someone who hasn’t been affected, in some way, by mental illness.
“You don’t have to go that deep,” said McClelland.
Demystifying and destigmatizing mental health can happen if people talk about it, he said.
For more information on Bell Canada’s “Let’s Talk” campaign and the programs it supports, visit letstalk.bell.ca.
As well, McClelland said the Whitehorse General Hospital’s mental health unit can also help.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at