Freedom from discrimination? Not if you have mental illness

Sharon Fawcett - Getting it Right (Tom Bateman/AQ)

On Oct. 2, Julie Campbell’s daughter escaped from The Moncton Hospital where she’d been admitted following an apparent suicide attempt.

The 15-year-old and two other young people overpowered the only nurse on duty in the provincial child/adolescent psychiatric unit and were later found at a nearby McDonald’s restaurant. The teen was returned to the unit and Campbell began a vigil there to prevent another escape.

During a CBC Radio interview on Oct. 6, Campbell noted some important realities about mental illness and the kind of care received by adolescents. One was the wait time for treatment.

Campbell was told that unless her family was willing to pay for the treatment themselves, her daughter would have to wait 12 months to be seen by a counsellor.

“In 12 months she’ll be dead,” Campbell said.

I was fortunate, for lack of a better word, to experience mental illness in the 1990s when there still seemed to be some money in health care budgets to provide adequate care, and hospitalisation when necessary, for people with serious mental illness. In my nine-year journey with depression (anorexia nervosa tagging along for three of those years) I spent a total of 80 weeks in hospital psychiatric wards and underwent many forms of psychological and psychiatric treatments. I only had to provide payment myself for a few sessions with a psychologist who wasn’t employed by the hospital.

But even while I was receiving excellent medical care, I was witnessing the beginnings of change. The most obvious was bed closures, when the psychiatric ward of the Saint John Regional Hospital went from two wings to one.

Over the years, as I’ve heard from people with mental illness who have not had their needs met by the health care system, I’ve come to recognise that psychiatric care in the nation has further eroded. Currently, only one third of Canadians requiring mental health services receive them. Just one in six Canadian children and adolescents with a mental illness will receive professional mental health care.

But the lack of available health care for people with mental illness is not the only issue. Lack of research is another.

Mental illness costs the Canadian economy $51 billion annually. Five of the ten leading causes of disability on the planet are mental illnesses (depression being the leading cause). Yet mental illness research receives less than four per cent of medical research funding.

The final issue—which may explain the lack of health care for, and research into, mental illness—is the fundamental one: Lack of respect.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises “the inherent dignity and…equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” but it seems that having a mental illness often disqualifies people from being treated with dignity or equality in Canada.

While there are still uninformed individuals who look down on people with mental illness, there are also brave souls willing to risk reproach to help others. Like Erica Chamberlain, the student who shared her own experience with mental illness in The Aquinian on Oct. 4 (see “Mental Illness: A New Normal,” by Alyssa Mosher).

Maybe with more Julie Campbells and Erica Chamberlains willing to speak out about their experiences, myths will be dispelled, government priorities will change, and light will penetrate the shadows of segregation and stigma where the mentally ill are made to dwell.

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