Over the past five years, the world has started talking more openly about mental health. The conversation about taking care of your mental health can be heard across the world in conversations among friends, all the way up to the highest levels of government. In Canada, from we’re I’m writing, an Ipos poll released in 2017 revealed that “85 percent of Canadians surveyed say they consider mental health to be as important as physical health – another 12 percent say it’s even more important. Half of Canadians (49 percent) say they’re personally more comfortable talking about their mental health when compared to two years ago.” Similar statistics have been popping up all over the world.
In my own life, I have seen the same family members who shamed me for dealing with anxiety, depression and other issues, have started to open up about struggling with their own mental health. As a kid, I remember struggling to find the space to talk about how I was feeling. I was sad when others were happy and worried when others were excited. When I tried to ask for support from my family, school or community, I was often told how I should “be grateful for my life” or “pray to God to feel better and have my pain lessened,” or — on particularly bad days — that I was an “overdramatic attention seeker making things up.” I felt so alone, so burdensome. This reinforced the silence and led me to think I was the problem, and that committing suicide would be the answer. After my suicide attempt, I was lucky enough to be found on time and taken to a hospital, where a fellow patient and a nurse encouraged me to keep living.
Thankfully, these experiences are in stark contrast to how things are like today. Thanks to the anti-stigma conversation, my family and friends now realize how harmful their prejudices were to me, how helpful it is to have access to the proper services and why such services should be available for everyone. For me, the most important change is to see that my parents, who survived trauma, war and abuse, are finally talking about it and processing it. That, as a family, we have come to realize that my struggles with mental illness reminded them of their own — and that’s why they tried so hard to ignore them. Together, we are ending the cycle of trauma that can follow one generation after the other.
Destroying the stigma around mental health has been an amazing movement to be part of, but also a shortsighted one. As we have dismantled stigma, the waitlists for mental health services have increased, as funding to mental health services has not kept pace. We’ve fostered a conversation around mental health while lacking to boost the services needed to ensure its prevention and treatment, leading to the mental health crisis in young people so often portrayed in the media. And while more young people speak about their mental issues, our suicide rates keep growing, mainly because we have policies to track suicide but we lack the resources to fight it where and when we need them.
A 2018 report by the Canadian O’Brien Institute for Public Health for the NGO Children First Canada illustrates the situation: “Over the last 10 years, there has been a 66 percent increase in emergency department visits, and a 55 percent increase in hospitalizations, of children and youth (age five to 24 years) due to mental health concerns.” The same report states that, in a year span, there was an eight percent increase in young people having thoughts of suicide.
I have experienced this trend personally. As someone using her own story to educate people about mental health issues, I remember the first time people told me that my story had encouraged them to ask for help. I remember the pain in their voice when they told me they had thought that admitting they weren’t well was “the big step,” only to realize that the system that was supposed to walk along side them in the hard journey of recovery wasn’t there at all. I remember how betrayed they felt by me for selling them a dream of recovery and services that they could not access. This led me to walk away from public speaking for a while, and rather focus on creating services to send people to.
So where do we go from here?
We need to encourage economic leaders to fund mental health services — whether it’s government, family foundations, businesses or others. We have to focus on helping remove the financial gap and lack of mental health services. We also need to make sure the mental health funding goes to innovative services. With the increase in demand, we need to be smart about where we spend the money.
We need to focus on resources that are lean, show positive changes, and that are accessible to as many people as possible. To me, this means directing the funds to mental health services that are operate online, on the phone or in comfortable community spaces rather than in expensive and overcrowded hospitals. Finally, we have to keep our leaders talking about mental health. We can encourage our local community to keep our political leaders honest about what they are doing to ensure that mental health is being addressed. Ask for education where needed, but also services and support for people who are now educated about this issue and realize something is wrong.
Alicia Raimundo is a mental health activist, writer, speaker and co-author of the book “Red Carnation”