Conversations about stigma aren’t new. In fact, I’d warrant they’re doing their job – people are talking about mental illness and addiction openly for the first time in my living memory. Difficult conversations have emerged from the shadows. Words like anxiety, depression, addiction and suicide, have found their way into the mainstream. Awareness appears to have peaked.
It’s what those of us who have mental health stories have always maintained was critical – silence can kill you, and it is in being open about struggles where healing begins.
It was just over 10 years ago that my middle son Eric began his journey through the confusing, chaotic, complex, disjointed “system” we call the mental health landscape. It was new to all of us. But we – being Eric and his family – dug our heels in, immersed ourselves in his illness and more importantly in seeking a possible solution. We lived with what I called the prescriptions of “yellow stickies.”
A teenager released from hospital with some possible places to seek support, written on a “yellow sticky.” Alternative treatments. Conventional treatments. We tried it all, every note on a “yellow sticky” was followed up on. Every. Single. Note. I could have papered the walls of my house with these helpful notes. What I couldn’t do was find meaningful help for my son.
Where, other than the mental part of our health care system would you be left with random suggestions on yellow sticky notes?
And, where else would you be the primary navigator in your own or your children’s care?
I do want to articulate that the caregivers themselves – doctors, nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists – were amazing in this journey. The problem was that the system itself was far too dysfunctional, too patchwork, too confusing, chaotic, complex and disjointed for even those who were supposed to be working in it to rise above and give patients and clients the help they so desperately needed. Clients and patients like my son.
When we lost Eric in August of 2013 to suicide, we didn’t need to navigate anymore. The search was over and we sadly never had found the answers we had been looking for. Today, in the work I do around advocacy and support for individuals and families living with mental illness in their midst, I get frequent calls from people searching for answers. Parents especially, like myself, hoping there is something more obvious that they are missing.
Ironically, as I was writing this blog today a father called me. He is navigating finding support for his son. He is doing everything I know he should do. His son speaks openly to his friends and his school about the struggles he faces.
What struck me in this conversation with this father, was how little had changed in the past 10 years since Eric’s first symptoms emerged and it was our family trapped by the complexities of the mental health system.
Except stigma. Stigma no longer hampers people from reaching out as evidenced by this young man and his family. This is particularly critical with youth. We know that most symptoms – 70 percent – of mental illness emerge in the early teens. We also know that the sooner the right supports are in place, the better the outcomes. Sadly, we also know that if someone reaches out for help, and that help doesn’t materialize there is little likelihood they will reach out again. And that is the conundrum we now face, people are reaching out, trusting there is a solution, an answer, and finding the same complexities that have plagued the mental health world for decades.
To change things for the better, so that individuals and families are better able to access necessary supports, systems need to work together. We must become truly integrative; we can no longer afford to work in silos and separately.
We’ve done what we set out to do with opening up the conversation. Now that we can – and do – speak honestly and openly about mental illness and addiction, it is time for doing. And doing differently.
Joy Pavelich, Communications & Community Engagement Leader, CMHA Calgary