Mental illness still viewed as a sign of weakness

New data shows 40 per cent of Canadians say they’ve experienced feelings of anxiety or depression — but haven’t sought medical help.

The numbers come from a survey of more than 1,500 Canadian adults by Women’s College Hospital and Shoppers Drug Mart.

The results offer a striking look at the level of stigma and shame still surrounding mental illness with 42 per cent of respondents saying they would be embarrassed to admit if they did have a mental health issue.

“People, despite everything, see it as a sign of weakness,” said Dr. Valerie Taylor, psychiatrist-in-chief, department of medicine at Women’s College Hospital and scientist at Women’s College Research Institute.

Mental health has made headlines in recent years, thanks to the efforts of activists, companies and individuals pushing to end the stigma — from the Canada-wide, conversation-starting Bell Let’s Talk campaign, to American actress Kristen Bell’s recent TIME magazine essay, in which she opened up for the first time about her struggle with depression after not speaking about her mental health issues for the first 15 years of her career.

“There is such an extreme stigma about mental health issues, and I can’t make heads or tails of why it exists,” Bell wrote in her May essay. “Anxiety and depression are impervious to accolades or achievements. Anyone can be affected, despite their level of success or their place on the food chain.”

The WCH and Shoppers Drug Mart survey was conducted online in May by Environics, a Toronto-based market research firm.

The poll highlighted the benefits of a strong support network, with 94 per cent of women and 85 of men saying the support of a friend of family member is important if they’re struggling with a mental issue such as anxiety or depression.

Even so, more than one-third of respondents said they wouldn’t know how to support someone who needed help.

“I think if we could decrease some of the stigma, people would perhaps be better able to come forward earlier and we’d have (fewer) tragedies,” Taylor said.

Ulla Jensen, a retired nurse in Port Hope, Ont., can relate to the tragedy of mental illness; her daughter Jeanine D’Antonio took her own life in April 2014 at the age of 44 after struggling with depression and anxiety.

“It was very hard for us to deal with — her family, her husband, her 11-year-old child. I feel the system let her down and we all had some complicity in it,” said Jensen.

“We weren’t able to recognize when she was really hurting,” she added.

Taylor said there’s no “magic approach” to helping someone with mental illness. “But if you can just be there and be a friend and say ‘let’s go for a walk and talk about the weather, let’s go outside and grab a coffee’ that’s huge,” she said.

Lynn Cockburn, an occupational therapist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto who has worked for two decades in the mental health field, wasn’t surprised by the poll results. “As much as things are changing, and there are so many brave people who are talking about things, for many people it’s still embarrassing,” she said.

Cockburn said friends and loved ones of people with mental health issues need to model supportive behaviour, just like they would for someone coping with a physical health concern such as cancer.

“It can be simple things (such as) making sure that people have somebody to go to an appointment with, especially if it’s the first or second time they’re going — it’s really scary going by yourself,” she said.

The “staggering statistics” surrounding mental illness — with one in five Canadians experiencing a mental health or addiction problem in any given year — means we all know someone affected, said Dr. Katy Kamkar, clinical psychologist at CAMH.

“Research has shown over and over again that quality social support plays a significant role in our health, well-being and recovery — in general, but in our mental health as well,” she said.

On June 11, Shoppers Drug Mart’s annual Run for Women takes place in Toronto, with all proceeds benefiting the Women’s Mental Health Program at Women’s College Hospital.

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