Let’s talk about mental health. I’ll start…
When I was 17 I was anorexic. My mother had me in and out of doctor’s offices but none of them would tell her what she wanted to hear, what she knew to be true, that her daughter had anorexia. My mother can be a bully and doctor’s don’t always respond well to that. She did, however, finally convince one of them to refer me to a psychiatrist.
When you are 17 and your mother makes you an appointment with a psychiatrist its kind of a big deal. In my case I saw it as an opportunity. Not an opportunity to get better but as an opportunity to help my mother get better. Looking back on that time of my life it is extremely clear to me that I had anorexia and the truth is that I think I even understood it then. The catch is anorexia is often about control (and I know in my case that was a huge factor) so admitting you have it, even if on some level you know it, sort of defeats the purpose. What I knew for sure was that my mother was troubled, inflexible, hurtful and bitter and I needed her to understand what she was doing to me, I needed her to understand that she needed help.
So, I went to that appointment with the psychiatrist with my own agenda. I went through all of the psychiatric testing – multiple choice questions with a heavy focus on paranoia. I sat and listened to the doctor interpret my results. He told me that I was not truthful in my tests and I told him he was just out to get me (he didn’t even crack a smile). Once all the testing and initial evaluating was done he brought my mother into the office. And then, to my surprise, he asked me what I wanted. What? Since when did my opinion matter? My mother started to squirm. She didn’t like where this was going. I was the “patient” I shouldn’t have an opinion. But I did have an opinion and I had every intention of stating that opinion. I calmly looked at the doctor and told him that I honestly believe that my mother needs help and that my life would be better if SHE would see a psychiatrist. Was there some defiant teenage girl, stick it your mother meaning in that? On some level, of course there was. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to that. Ultimately however, I didn’t say it to be mean. I didn’t say it to get even. I didn’t say it for any other reason than I truly believed it and so desperately wanted it.
My mother reacted predictably. As she does in most situations where she feels challenged, she laughed. And that, folks, was that. We never went back to the psychiatrist, the whole event was never mentioned again. My mother never got help.
This week is Mental Health Week in Canada. Mental Health Week is an annual national event that takes place to encourage people from all walks of life to learn, talk, reflect and engage with others on all issues relating to mental health.
Most of us have no problems talking about our health or our families health but when it comes to mental health we tend to keep it to ourselves. I’m sure you’ve heard the stats – 1 in 3 of us will be effected by mental health issues, whether it’s our own or someone we love; 20% of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime, suicide is one of the leading causes of death from adolescents to adulthood (24% of all deaths for 15-24 year olds).
The face of mental health is no different from any other face in the crowd. It could be your neighbor, your boss, your best friend, even your child. Someone you know could very well be struggling with depression or anxiety and you have no idea. This was in fact the case of a friend and neighbor of ours. A happily married 32 year old, father to a beautiful 3 year old girl. He had it all. A family, a good job, a home. He had in fact survived a major heart attack just a couple of years ago. He was lucky to be alive and from all outward appearances he was embracing that. But, just a few weeks ago, the depression that few people knew he was struggling with, became too much and he took his own life. Would things have been different if he has been able to talk more about it? The answer is – maybe.
We need to fight the stigma associated with mental health. We, as parents, have the perfect opportunity to put a dent in that stigma. As parents, we have an obligation to do just that. Our children need to know that they can and should talk about depression, anxiety etc. We need to do it for them, so they don’t suffer silently and so that they can help others. We need to teach them that mental illness is just that, an illness. And like any other illness, it is not something to be ashamed of, and you can get help. Take opportunities to talk to your children and mental health. Fortunately, the subject is featured more and more in the media these days. Prominent and influential people, celebrities, athletes and others in the spotlight are coming forward and talking about their struggles with mental health. Those are perfect times to start a dialogue.
Does my mother suffer from a mental illness? Probably. I am not a mental health professional so I can’t offer up a diagnosis but I don’t think anyone chooses to treat their child the way she has treated me at times in my life. I wish that she would talk about it. I wish my brothers, who both suffer from various mental health issues, could talk about it. I also hope, more than anything, that they can break this cycle of silence so that their children grow up with a different mindset.
Don’t become a statistic, don’t let your child become a statistic. Enable them in this fight against discrimination and stigma. We are constantly told to talk to our children, and often, about things like alcohol and drugs so add this to the list of things your children need to know about. Open the dialogue and get talking about mental health.