Last summer my dad lost his battle against mental illness. Since my childhood he had struggled with a severe panic disorder, bouts of deep depression and alcoholism. As his family, we felt helpless in getting him the support he needed. After suffering for decades, my dad finally gave up.
In his early 40’s, my father began receiving regular therapy for his anxiety and depression and was whisked on a rollercoaster ride through a series of medications. There were times when he lost days of his memory from new drug trials and presented abnormal behaviours that not even he knew he possessed.
Once my dad finally received the right combination of medications, his panic and depression remained under control for many years. And for several stretches of time, his drinking did too. He attempted to hold down a job on many occasions after that (he even tried his hand at entrepreneurship) but couldn’t continue working for any length of time. When I was growing up, my father was a highly-functioning person – an iron worker, fisherman, gardener, water-skier and social butterfly. But after developing mental illness, he had trouble adapting to his new “normal.” He needed tools to conquer his fears and negative thought patterns but was scared to be re-medicated and to put his family and himself through hell once again. He had terrible experiences with the mental health system and was horrified of how experimental “treatment” still was.
In early 2014, when my dad finally went to seek treatment again, he was told there were no psychiatrists in our area taking on patients. He was told there were lengthy waiting lists for programming in the city and so he threw his name into the hat. By the time they called him for an appointment he was already gone.
In the fall of 2014, my dad’s panic disorder was in full swing and by December he’d completely retreated to his bedroom. His medication was not effective anymore after being on it for 20 years and he was waking up nightly with what he called “symptoms of a heart attack”. Doctors ran the full gamut of physical tests on him and concluded it was “all in his head.” He couldn’t catch his breath throughout the day, was often sobbing and was scared to death.
Eventually my dad got an appointment to see a psychiatrist over the computer from our local hospital (Tele-Health). The doctor made no changes to his medication and scheduled no follow-up appointments. When spring came, he drank heavily, forcing my mother to take a leave of absence and eventually leave her position of 36 years. He lost more than 50 pounds, could no longer walk, was becoming more delusional, depressed and even unpredictable. He refused to go in an ambulance when they were called and because he was cognitive, they couldn’t force him. He said he had given up and wanted to die at home. He wanted us all to honour his wishes. He threatened to hurt us if we committed him.
So instead, my mother found a group of friends, including doctors, nurses, addiction counsellors (even Jehovah’s Witnesses who continued coming to the door) to help care for him at home for free and for several weeks on end. My dad managed to ween off alcohol with a community of support around him, but he never recovered. In June, he was finally taken out by ambulance. At this stage, we learned that he was in liver failure – cirrhosis.
After being admitted for several weeks in our local hospital, he came around mentally (once the poisons in his liver were flushed out). I spent a great deal of time by his side and actually got to see my dad more like his true self again. We had some great talks. He apologized for his behaviour and said how sorry he was. He didn’t remember much of what happened. In July, his organs shut down. He took his last breath.
Facts about Mental Illness
Approximately, 20% of Canadians will experience mental illness in their lifetime (about 1 in 5) and the cost to our national economy is in excess of $50 billion a year. Mental illness encompasses a number of disorders such as anxiety, mood, eating, psychotic, impulse control and addiction, personality, obsessive compulsive and post-traumatic stress.
Approximately 2 out of 3 people in Canada suffering from a mental illness will not seek out the help they need because of the fear of being judged (stigma). Many times when they do, they are discouraged and fall through the cracks because of accessibility to services and overall affordability. What’s disheartening is that a Canadian Medical Association poll found that 51% of Canadians said they would not socialize with a friend who has a serious mental illness. Friends and family need to champion and advocate on behalf of their loved ones, otherwise they may never navigate their way through the mental health system and get the help they need. Loneliness and isolation exacerbate hopelessness.
Every day, approximately 11 people will take their own lives in Canada. Most people who attempt suicide want to live but cannot see another way to handle a situation that is overwhelming (90% of those who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental illness). I’m not sure if this statistic includes the slowest of suicidal tactics, alcoholism.
How social media can raise awareness and hope
The No. 1 way to improve the stigma of mental illness and increase funding in Canada is through education. Through the Bell Let’s Talk awareness initiative prominent figures like Olympian Clara Hughes, Comedian Howie Mandell and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are publically sharing their own struggles with mental illness. Through this awareness campaign, Canadians are also encouraged help end the stigma attached to mental illness by starting their own conversations online, at home and at work. Through education and openness (making personal struggles less invisible), we can create a supportive dialogue with each other and a stronger voice for mental health advocacy in Canada. It’s hard to deny the facts once you hear them.
The next Bell Let’s Talk Day is Wednesday, January 27, 2016. Every time you Tweet a message of hope using the hashtag #BellLetsTalk or share the Let’s Talk image on your Facebook page the company will donate five cents to help fund mental health initiatives across Canada. This also applies to Bell customers who text or make long-distance phone calls that day. Bell’s aim is to raise $100 million for mental health programming by 2020. #BellLetsTalk was the #1 Twitter trend in Canada and worldwide on Bell Let’s Talk Day 2015.
How has mental illness affected you and your family?
Do you feel mental health services should be more of a funding priority in Canada?
Will you help continue the conversation?
Additional statistics provided by: http://letstalk.bell.ca/en/end-the-stigma/