For those with mental illness, there is
often a price for coming out of the shadows. Promising job
prospects turn bleak. Friendships go sour.
But in much the same way that members of
other minority groups historically marginalized by society
organized to fight for and win better treatment and more
government protections, the mentally ill and their families are
scoring victories as their own lobby.
The most recent of these, advocates say,
is the creation of the federal Mental Health Commission of
Canada, whose primary purpose is to develop a national strategy
to combat mental illness and the stigma attached to it. Its
chairman, former Liberal senator Michael Kirby, and five of its
17 board members either live with mental illness or have a close
relative who is a sufferer.
“This is the first time ever that there
has been a national focus on mental health in this country,” Mr.
Kirby said in a telephone interview. “We've got to make
absolutely sure that we prevent this issue from ever going back
into the shadows.”
To that end, the commission is
considering a slew of initiatives aimed at going beyond the
traditionally staid public service ads and changing the way
services are delivered to the mentally ill.
One of those is the creation of
federally funded affordable housing units for the mentally ill.
Advocates envision entire communities where residents can find
services and support groups, including peer interventions, at
their fingertips within their development, rather than having to
bounce between a hodgepodge of hospitals and clinics.
There are also calls for changes to the
Criminal Code that would grant review boards the same power as
the court system to order the involuntary treatment of mentally
ill people in the justice system.
But in pushing for change, Mr. Kirby and
his colleagues on the commission face a tough battle. Although
government statistics show that roughly 15 per cent of the
population suffers from at least a moderate mental illness, such
as depression or anxiety, government services fall woefully
short of demand.
Provinces have laws to protect people
with disabilities, but none explicitly address mental illness,
advocates say. Services are limited in many parts of the
country, and only those provided by doctors or through hospitals
must be publicly funded. A $300-million federal health promotion
prevention fund established in 2005 allocates less than 2 per
cent to mental health.
The short shrift, advocates charge, is
fuelled by indifference toward the mentally ill across all
segments of society, including at the highest levels of
“I'm not sure it can be eradicated any
more than racism can be eradicated,” said Phil Upshall, national
executive director of the Mood Disorders Society of Canada and
an adviser to the commission. “What we can do is develop human
rights for people with mental illness the same way we've done
for people with physical disabilities. Attitudes have to
The commission is considering adopting a
tactic used in Australia, where mental health education is
mandated in Grade 5. Students are introduced to everyday people
with mental illness, to show them that sufferers can live
productive and normal lives.
Such a strategy might help relieve the
anxiety faced by children like Erynn Quigley. The 11-year-old
sixth-grader began exhibiting symptoms of bipolar disorder as a
toddler, and today ingests a cocktail of five different
medications to control mood swings ranging from seething rages
to manic highs.
The disorder has made her the subject of
name-calling and cruel horseplay. She is acutely aware of how
her illness is perceived by others.
“I want people to know that bipolar
disorder doesn't make you different from anyone else, but I'm
afraid people will run away from me at school because they're
afraid I'll have a mood swing,” she said.
The federal panel is not expected to
have a definitive plan of action for its anticipated $5-million,
decade-long anti-stigma campaign until next spring.
Changing attitudes is the driving force
behind Artbeat Studio in Winnipeg. The studio, founded by Mr.
Bart after the Winnipeg public mental health agency rejected his
application as a counsellor on the basis of his schizophrenia,
aims to reintegrate mentally ill artists into mainstream
Thirteen years ago, the paranoid
delusions that had sent Mr. Bart on all-night scavenger hunts
around Winnipeg for signs from God paralyzed him in the library
at the University of Winnipeg, where he was a student. A
librarian found him curled up under a cubicle.
After a year of recovery on his parents'
farm that included sleeping for months on end, therapy sessions
with a psychiatrist and adjusting to medication, he enrolled in
art school at the University of Manitoba, where he eventually
earned a bachelor's degree.
Now happily married and a father to a
young son, Mr. Bart still takes medication daily and has made
educating the public about mental illness his mission. He has
not had a schizophrenic episode in four years.
“Recovery does not mean cure,” he said.
“I may very well be taking medication for the rest of my life.
But what needs to be understood is that people with mental
illness can achieve great things.”