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Editorial: Talking about Mental Illness

Network, Winter 2004

Barbara Everett, Ph.D.
CEO, Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario

When you think about it, disclosure is an odd word to describe the act of telling someone you are suffering, but the term is commonly used when we speak of mental illness. People are required to disclose a mental illness — in order to get help and treatment, or to qualify for social assistance. But the word itself has several shades of meaning, some of which may serve to perpetuate discrimination — and in such a covert manner as to be almost invisible. Among the synonyms for disclosure are confession and admission. You do not admit to having had a heart attack. You do notconfess to a diagnosis of cancer. But you disclose a mental illness.

It is an unfair reality that many people consider it dangerous to tell someone that they have a mental illness. They may lose the support of a loved one, be ridiculed at school, or lose a job. These are terrible prices to pay for being ill and, as many point out, create isolation and loneliness at the very time they need comfort and support.

The time has come to simply talk about it.

The people featured in this issue of Network decided to talk about it and, as a result, remarkable things happened. They found employers who valued them, family members who were more than willing to support them in their journey, and friends who understood. Not all stories end happily, but the heroes in these pages seem stronger because they now know that some of the people they thought would understand, didn’t. After all, what is the future of any relationship when you ask for help and support in a time of need, and the person puts you down, criticizes you or abandons you?

It requires personal courage to take the risk to see who will stick with you through thick and thin. Dr. Ron Book says, “When a patient is surrounded by people who are willing to take time out of their lives to help a loved one through a difficult time, it paves the way for the patient to make not only a quicker recovery, but to have a more full recovery.” Mary Ann Baynton, Director of CMHA, Ontario’s Mental Health Works project and a former employer of people who let her know that they had a mental illness, says, “We all have things in our life that we have to deal with at one time or another.” Craig Wentzell’s mother, Brenda, says, “Craig knows we are all here for him.”

Are these people unique? I don’t think so. What is unique is that no one bought the idea that having a mental illness was a shameful thing. They also don’t feel that asking for help when you need it makes you less of a person.

Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor James Bartleman has made speaking out about his own mental illness one of his main activities during his term in office. When public figures like the Lieutenant Governor talk publicly about their experience, several things happen. First, the media reports what Mr. Bartleman says and many people get to hear and read about it. Second, people are educated as he talks about what his symptoms were and what he did to grapple with them. Third, he’s a role model because he has struggled for years with depression and then post-traumatic stress disorder but continued his fine representation of our country. Fourth, he offers hope.

Mr. Bartleman still takes medication and has his bad days, but he is in charge of his illness, not the other way around. Finally, and perhaps most important of all, he encourages others to talk about it.

And that is what the people featured in this issue of Network do. They talk about it.

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