Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A View From the Other Side of Popular Opinion

Q: When does a stigma become insignificant?
A: When it is associated with wealth, affluence and power.

Where does that leave the rest of us?

Over the past few years "mental health" issues have become the topic of many public awareness campaigns.  In and of itself this is a good thing. Canadian celebrities and media personalities such as Clara Hughes and Seamus O'Regan certainly do succeed in helping "average people" realize that mental illness does not discriminate based on affluence, education or achievements. And while I'm at it, kudos to Bell Canada for taking up the cause.

I have no intention of  speaking ill against any one's efforts to do good.

I just don't think it is enough, and I can't quite put my finger on the missing link.

Sure we've come along way from the institutionalization of people who have "gone mad" by throwing them in a large facility with largely untrained attendants where physical abuse and unspeakable experiments took place, but we have a long way to go still.

The recent death of Robin Williams by his own hand once again has the whole world talking. That he was kind, generous, sensitive and masked his illness very well is a given, for the purposes of this short dissertation. The point is, this tragedy will eventually fade into "oh yeah, remember when Robin Williams died" and the mental illness part of the conversation will also become but a distant memory.

Until the next one. At some point another prominent person will lose the battle and we'll all talk again and we'll all remember "Oh yeah, that happened to Robin Williams too." And once a year the "Let's Talk" campaign will highlight the issue for yet another few moments in the continuum.

The reality is that most of us who battle depression and other forms of mental illness do not feel empowered to "come out". There is a class system in play here and I challenge anyone to prove me wrong. When Clara Hughes talks about her battles with debilitating depression, we all cheer at how she has overcome and managed to be an Olympic champion in spite of mental illness - as we well should. I admire her spirit, determination and her victories, and I aspire on a smaller scale to achieve the same.

When Joe Average can't get out of bed because the world is closing in around him, and, too ashamed to ask for help, he misses yet another day of work to pound  back a bottle of his poison of choice, no one cheers and waves flags when he finally gets back to work and manages to do his job with mere competence.

Intending no disrespect to those of a higher profile who have found the courage to make public their personal demons,  I would submit that there is a huge disconnect between them and us.

Why does a woman who take anti-depressant medication in order to function in the regular world still feel compelled to admit, with embarrassment, "ummmm, oh yeah, those are... ummm my happy pills".

People with a physical ailment can count on leagues of supporters to provide comfort, cooked meals, rides to the hospital and other manifestation of human kindness. When someone we know battles mental illness, we don't know what to say.

When the day finally arrives that Joe or Mary Average can publicly share his or her battle with depression without enduring sideways glances, subtle (and sometimes not) discrimination and awkward avoidance of the topic, I'll know we've arrived.

But please; long after we stop hearing on the news that "on this day X years ago Robin Williams died at his own hand after a long battle with depression", let's keep the conversation going until the stigma of mental illness stops those who are struggling feel empowered to find the help they need.

As for me, I'm merely a whisper away from proving that what is sometimes referred to as "The F*** Off Fifties" is indeed not a myth. I'm fortunate enough to have stopped caring, for the most part, what people think of me.

Grinning and full of hope and mischief as I sign off for today....

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