Monday, 24 November 2008

Broadening the Spectrum of Stories about Mental Illness

This week the Globe and Mail is revisiting the issue of Canada's mental health crisis in a week long expose. Saturday's article addressed child and youth mental health. Kudos to Anderssen and Picard for bringing attention to an issue that is often underreported and often misunderstood by mainstream media outlets. The piece has some important points to make - most notably about the absurd double-standard we have about mental health care in this country:

"If only one in six adults who needed a hip got one, there would be a revolt," says Simon Davidson, a psychiatrist at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario. "So how can we tolerate a situation where one in six sick children get care?"

The article also successfully highlights the many ways that mental illness affects all aspects of a child's life, especially relationships with parents and teachers. The complexity of understanding mental disorders in children and youth, as well as the complex health systems in place for youth to get help are indeed barriers that need to be addressed.

"Most young people with mental illness suffer in silence ... Sometimes their parents are oblivious, or put it all down to a phase. But often their families suffer with them, unsure of where to turn in a system bogged down by turf wars, waiting lists and funding shortages."

The need to address mental health problems early in is also clear. Dr. Waddell's metaphor is apt: "If we wait until adulthood to treat these problems, it's like using a teacup to bail out the boat". However, for all the positive points addressed in the article, the authors somewhat undermine their own message by using language that only seeks to enhance the stigma associated with mental illness. By telling the stories of youth who have "violent rages", and by using phrases like "locked in their rooms, cutting themselves, crying and plotting suicide", and suffering from some kind of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" syndrome, the authors are not providing a very balanced viewpoint about youth with mental disorders. The challenge is to give mental illness a "face", without giving it a face that paints a very extreme picture of what people with mental disorders experience. So much of the public understanding of mental illness is informed by these extreme pictures - people who are violent, out of control, hallucinating, etc. - when in reality people who experience those episodes comprise a very small percentage of the population. if we are truly going to normalize and destigmatize the issue of mental illness we need to start telling stories from different perspectives that reflect the wide spectrum of experiences that youth and families dealing with mental illness have.

 ~ D. Venn

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