Any of you who have ever struggled with mental health or addiction issues probably won’t be surprised to hear the findings from a study released last week by the Institute of Clinical Evaluative Studies and Public Health Ontario titled, Opening Eyes, Opening Minds: The Ontario Burden of Mental Illness and Addictions Report (http://www.ices.on.ca/file/Opening-Eyes_Full_Report.pdf.). Obviously, experiencing mental health problems or addictions (or both, as is often the case) can have a major negative impact on your quality of life. What you might not have known, however, is the depths of these impacts.
The researchers looked at how much one’s good quality of life is either cut short due to premature death or made more miserable due to various illnesses. What they found was that people lose one and a half times more good quality time in their life with mental illness or addiction compared to ALL CANCERS COMBINED and SEVEN times more good life is lost due to mental illness or addiction compared to all infectious diseases. Nobody questions that Cancer and infectious diseases are serious and can be devastating to people’s lives (IT’S CANCER! THE C WORD! WE FEAR IT BECAUSE IT’S TERRIBLE!)…but this is the point.
Mental illness is significant and widespread—1 in 5 people experience mental health problems at some point in life. Depression was identified as the most burdensome of all the diseases looked at in this study. In fact, the study cited World Health Organization’s (WHO) projections that by 2020, depression will be the second leading cause of disability, worldwide. Further troubling is that 88% of the mental health and addiction related deaths were due to alcohol use disorders. Not only this, but the study was really conservative in its estimates of mental health, since they didn’t include generalized anxiety disorder or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because they couldn’t measure the impact of these diseases effectively. Since we know that anxiety disorders and PTSD can cause major health problems, just imagine what kind of an impact mental health problems are REALLY having on the overall health of the population. Even if they did include all mental illnesses and addictions in their study, they still likely would have not been able to include everyone. Let’s say, for instance, that someone has cancer and is depressed, their cause of death is more likely to be listed as cancer, even if their depression made their cancer harder to treat.
What is most troubling to me is that although mental health and addiction problems are so detrimental, people aren’t getting the help that they need, even though THERE ARE EFFECTIVE TREATMENTS FOR MENTAL ILLNESS AND ADDICTION!!! Some aren’t getting treatment because they can’t access mental health services in the public system due to long wait lists and they lack adequate insurance coverage to pay for private psychological services. Not only this, there is also a great stigma and shame that continues to be associated with mental illness that poses a significant barrier to people getting their needs met. Can you imagine what would happen if there were known treatments for cancer, but Canadians had to pay out of pocket to get the treatment that would help them and they should be ashamed for having cancer? And yet, that’s supposed to make sense when it comes to addictions and mental health.
The best way I know how to combat stigma and shame is through talking about it. Initiatives like Bell’s “Let’s Talk” campaign is a great beginning to making mental health treatment a more normal and viable way to address problems. (NOTE: I have no financial interest in Bell… I don’t even have one of their phones.) Among other things, they donated proceeds of text messages to mental health research and they created a website (letstalk.bell.ca) and public service announcements where famous Canadians talked about their personal struggles with mental health issues. Seeking out psychological or psychiatric services should be no more shameful than suffering from heart disease or diabetes.
Treatment doesn’t have to be scary, either. When people come to see me, I may encourage them to talk about difficult things, but we always stay at a pace that is within what I think of as a comfortable discomfort—enough discomfort to be making change, but not so much that it blows the doors off your house. Sometimes people worry that if they tell me something difficult or disturbing, I’ll have them locked up…but I really can’t do that anyway, and we’ve come a long way in advocating for the rights of people to make decisions about their own health care.
Given that many of the mental health disorders and addiction related disorders start in adolescence and early adulthood, early treatment and prevention strategies could go a long way to reduce the burden and recurrence of such illnesses over time. Furthermore, as the study authors recommend, we also need more preventative health care and to address the structural factors that lead to poor health outcomes generally, such as poverty, social isolation, inadequate housing and unemployment. Mental illness and addictions are serious health problems that rob people of years of good quality living. These disorders can also be effectively treated, for most people, so suffering can end and people can get back to feeling as they ordinarily would, participating more fully in their own lives, families and communities.