During the holidays, we tend to focus our energies and blog posts on the positive aspects of celebrating with friends and family. Yet, Christmas can be a difficult time as well, remembering loved ones who are no longer with us, or feeling sadness or guilt about those friends or family members whom we have lost touch with. Christmas can be especially difficult for individuals and families struggling with mental illness.
In one of my former career roles, I was involved with creating a welcoming environment to help students flourish on campus; setting up systems and services to help support students struggling with addiction and mental health issues; and promoting open discussion about mental health in an effort to reduce stigma. It was important work, and I believe that those initiatives have made the post-secondary experience better for many students.
But what I would like to write about today comes from a more personal perspective. As with most of us, mental health issues have impacted my life because of illnesses experienced by members of my family, and by close friends and their families. I would need more than my ten fingers to count the number of family members or close friends who have struggled with depression, anxiety, or both. This is not surprising, as depression and anxiety are extremely prevalent in our North American society. Other mental illnesses include schizophrenia, psychosis, personality disorders, and eating disorders.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health reports that:
Although depression and anxiety are the most commonly reported mental illnesses, and especially prevalent among young people between 15 and 24, substance abuse often goes hand-in-hand with mental health struggles. In my extended family, over the past ten years we have lost two young adults to addiction related deaths. These were smart, successful, personable, well-loved young people. Being loved, and having supportive families and partners, were not sufficient to protect them from substance misuse that ultimately led to their deaths.
|International Overdose Awareness Day in Vancouver, BC, August 2017. Photo credit: The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck, retrieved from Huffington Post|
I believe that it is important to speak openly about mental health matters, and to encourage people to seek appropriate help rather than being ashamed about their illness and hiding it. I believe it is important to support each other and to recognize that mental illness is an illness, not a willful behaviour or lack of individual strength. De-stigmatizing mental illness helps people reach self-acceptance and develop strategies to stay healthy, and helps families and friends to behave in more understanding and supportive ways. Increased awareness about mental illness also is the first step toward addressing discrimination within our workplaces and other social organizations.
in the last decade, great strides have been made in enhancing awareness about mental health. There is excellent research being done, and better support and services at universities, colleges, and through government provided social services. Organizations like the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health, and here to help serve as portals to information and services. Online "self-serve" resources are increasingly available, such as the info sheets and tool kits provided by here to help.
|Image from Canadian Mental Health Association: https://cmha.ca|
However, we still have a long way to go. There simply aren't enough services available to help everyone adequately, as can be seen in the current opioid crisis, and the high levels of homelessness.
Very often, families are left to struggle on their own to cope with a family member's mental illness or addiction, or to deal with the aftermath of an addiction death or suicide. With many types of mental illness, such as schizophrenia or dementia, the person with the illness shows little self-awareness. They may not recognize that they have an illness. They may have paranoid delusions about family members or health professionals who try to help them, and resist the assistance. They may refuse medication or counselling.
People who are deeply depressed, self-harming, manic, addicted, or delusional can be difficult to be around. A family member in a helping role may feel helpless and anxious about whether their loved one will find ways to survive and thrive, and to overcome or live with their condition.
Similarly, people struggling with a mental illness may try to hide it from family and friends because they don't want them to worry, or they don't want to be a burden. However, speaking about the issues openly can help to relieve the pain of keeping it bottled up. It can help family members understand, reduce their anxiety, and enable them to provide better support.
One of my hopes in this Christmas season is that each of us reaches out in some small way to someone we know who is struggling. Whether we provide a listening ear, make a phone call, send a card, donate to support mental health research, or make a point of including someone in the festivities who otherwise might be on their own, each one of us can add a little cheer in the Christmas season.
In British Columbia, Canada, the province-wide Crisis Centre phone number is 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433). The Crisis Centre also provides an online crisis chatline and a youth chatline, as well as a number of free services for parents and families.