Why our money doesn't go toward mental health: A cause for concern

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In 2013/14, the Canadian Cancer Society raised $198.5 million and the B.C. Cancer Foundation raised another $36.3 million to combat cancer. Lapels were donned with daffodils, relays upon relays were run and Canada’s most affluent danced at black-tie galas. Meanwhile, roughly seven million Canadians were struggling with a mental illness (20 per cent of the population), yet the Canadian Mental Health Association was only able to raise $1.19 million. Why?

The issues in comparison

Comparing cancer with mental illness can be problematic, controversial and confusing, but the contrasting attitudes toward both health concerns give grave evidence toward the shadowy status of mental illness in Canada and B.C.

All types of cancer are harrowing, severe and traumatic. Two in five Canadians will develop cancer at some point in their life-time and about 76,000 people die of cancer each year in Canada, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. But most of us already know this; these statistics do not come as a shock and are not widely unknown because people talk about cancer. A lot.

What should come as a shock, however, is that suicide is the number two leading cause of death among people age 10 to 24, behind unintentional injury, and over 800,000 people die of suicide around the world each year.

Mental illness will directly or indirectly affect all Canadians at some point in life

You may have a brother with bi-polar disorder, a mother with alcoholism or a friend with chronic depression. You, yourself, may have an anxiety disorder or an eating disorder. There are dozens of kinds of mental illnesses and no one is immune.

According to the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information’s Here to Help website, seven per cent of B.C. teenagers say they attempted suicide in the last year. In a classroom of 30 students, that is two people.

Yet, attitudes toward mental illness and the landscape of care in B.C. still leave much to be desired.

The stigma toward mental illness

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) reports that “over half of people living with mental illnesses said that they were embarrassed about their health problems, and over half felt like they had experienced discrimination.” This is likely connected to the adjacent statistics that just under half of Canadians think mental illness is just an excuse for poor behaviour, only one in three people would continue to be friends with someone with an alcohol use problem and only one in four would be friends with someone with a drug use problem.

“Just under half of Canadians think mental illness is just an excuse for poor behaviour”

In a CMHA article titled “The Stigma Associated with Mental Illness”, author David Whalen states that 67 per cent of Canadians consider chronic depression a disability; however, more Canadians believe the physically disabled are better able to serve as teachers, volunteers, police officers and parents.

He also notes the number of public misconceptions toward mental illness that exist in our society.

“An egregious misconception is that the poor and unintelligent are more apt to be mentally ill when in fact anyone of any social class or intelligence can be afflicted. Mental illness is also seen as characteristic of personal weakness and a lack of self-control. In truth, mental illness is not indicative of laziness or any lack of will.”

Mental health discrimination affects social status, employment, family and even health care. Whalen refers to a Canadian Senate report, Out of the Shadows at Last, which describes incidents where “individuals in suicidal states were made to wait in emergency rooms while people with physical ailments bypassed them.”

“We live in world where if you break your arm, everyone runs over to sign your cast, but if you tell people you’re depressed, everyone runs the other way.”

A lack of empathy and sympathy toward those with mental illness, and the incurred discrimination that comes along with it, increases the likelihood of both physical and mental health problems.

Kevin Breel, a B.C. writer, stand-up comic and mental health activist, has one of the most viewed TED Talks on YouTube, and in his poignant and hard-hitting words, describes this stigma:

“We live in world where if you break your arm, everyone runs over to sign your cast, but if you tell people you’re depressed, everyone runs the other way.”

We don’t talk about depression or mental health on Facebook or Twitter, and it’s rarely seen on the news. When someone writes a Facebook post about struggling with cancer, comments and support roll in, but when someone writes about how they’re sad, it appears like they’re looking for attention.

Breel understands how deep this stigma roots itself in our society, right down to what we choose to post on social media.

“The stigma in our society around depression is very real, and if you think that it isn’t, ask yourself this: Would you rather make your next Facebook status say you’re having a tough time getting out of bed because you hurt your back or you’re having a tough time getting out of bed every morning because you’re depressed?”

The same discrimination that keeps people from sharing their struggles with mental illness also stops them from seeking treatment. As Breel suggests, it’s the disapproving faces and fear of someone labelling someone else as “crazy” that stops people from getting help.

And thus, mental health is left out of discussion, left out of media and left out of our wallets. There are few large fundraising events, viral campaigns or get well soon cards delivered for those with mental illness.

Is current action enough?

Though the B.C. and Canadian governments are taking action to better support mental health treatment, the landscape of care and prevention is still lacking. A Canadian Mental Health Commission report released earlier this month shows that several important mental health indicators display some or significant concerns.

Areas listed as subjects for concern include access to treatment and re-admission rates, anxiety or mood disorder prevalence in children and school education programs, experiences of discrimination, mental illness-related disability claims and anxiety or mood disorders in seniors.

Areas listed as subjects for significant concern include high stress rates related to family caregiving, intentional self-harm among college students, suicide rates and perceived mental health in people with common mental health conditions.

A spokesperson from the B.C. Ministry of Health told Vancity Buzz that B.C. has made it a priority to “build a comprehensive system of mental health and substance use services across the province.” This included the investment of $1.38 billion in mental health and substance use services in 2013-14.

Their initiatives have resulted in an increase of 6,043 new adult community mental health beds since 2001, as well as 1,774 new community substance use beds, making the province’s total as of March 2014 at 10,983 and 2,648 respectively.

The number of general practitioners providing mental health services and the number of psychiatrists in B.C. has also increased.

Is this enough?

“While mental illnesses constitute more than 15% of the burden of disease in Canada, these illnesses receive less than 6% of health care dollars,” says the CMHA.

The dollars don’t make sense

Mental health problems and illnesses cost the Canadian government $50 billion per year, not including associated costs in the criminal justice system. Among individuals, $42.3 billion was spent in Canada in 2011 for treatment, care and support services for people with mental illness.

In the United States, the average cost per person with a mental illness was $1,591 USD in 2006. In fact, as a sum total, Americans paid the same amount for cancer treatment in 2006 as they did for mental health treatment and more people incurred costs for mental health problems than any medical condition except for asthma. In numbers, 36.2 million Americans paid for mental health treatment while 11.1 million paid for cancer treatment.

There is little doubt the demand for mental health treatment is high. While psychiatry is usually covered under the B.C. Medical Services Plan, counselling or therapy is not. Counselling can cost between $100 and $200 per session, with numerous appointments needed before progress or change is seen.

Free services can be found in British Columbia, but they are limited. The Mood Disorders Association of B.C. runs 40 support groups in cities and towns across the province, with special interests catering to Cantonese and Mandarin speakers, faith-based groups, families, the Jewish community and those with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Vancouver Coastal Health also runs the Outpatient Psychiatry Team program for adults with anxiety, depression or personality issues. University campuses, such as UBC, include free counselling as a student benefit, but those programs have been criticized recently for poor performance.

We are the ones to blame

The discrepancy between funds raised to combat cancer in Canada and the funds raised to treat mental illness is not the fault of any organization or government. It is our fault.

For some reason, the deterioration of any body part except the brain, elicits concern, sympathy and action, but when our mental health is at risk, few happen to notice or care.

While many more people will die of cancer than mental illness, the great number of people afflicted with a mental health problem should dissuade the discrimination, stigma and lack in financial resources. If we continue to talk about mental illness and bring it in common public discourse, more people will be able to receive the help they need.

Last year’s Bell Let’s Talk campaign raised $5,472,585 toward increasing awareness, reducing stigma and helping to change behaviours and attitudes about mental health issues. Today, Bell continues its annual campaign by donating five cents for every text message and long distance call made, tweet using #BellLetsTalk and share of their Facebook image.

Add your voice.

Featured Image: Mental health via Shutterstock

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About the author

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Jill Slattery Jill Slattery was born and raised in Vancouver, where she also earned an Arts degree from UBC in English and Creative Writing. She is an avid TV-watcher and a shameless Taylor Swift fangirl. Jill is a Staff Writer at Vancity Buzz. Contact her at jill@vancitybuzz.com
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