Speak your mind and erase a stigma


From Friday's Globe and Mail

June 19, 2008 at 6:32 PM EDT

I have a young friend named Alyse. Well, she's not really my friend; she's my daughter Bailey's friend. But I've known her since she was in Grade 2 and she's the most effervescent, courteous and accomplished child I've ever met. She's small in stature, but creates a huge presence.

I don't think I've ever heard Alyse complain about her mental illness. She suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette's syndrome and has interrupted her life with repeated hospital stays. She has several thousand intricate rituals she must perform to get through each and every day. Just extracting herself from her bedroom can be as complicated as navigating the seven seas.

Many of us would curl up in the corner. Alyse, now 17, isn't many of us. She turns birthday parties into fundraisers and speaks about her illness to groups large and small.

One in five Canadians will experience a mental illness in his or her lifetime. It is a pervasive presence in almost all of our lives. And yet we rarely speak of it.

The mentally ill are not different; they are us. As a society, we have thrown off many of our social stigmas, but not yet those surrounding mental illness.

There is no better time to start than now. Over the next eight days, The Globe and Mail and globeandmail.com will introduce you to a series of utterly compelling Canadians people just like you and me who are struggling with mental illnesses. In a landmark series called Breakdown, the subjects of our stories will invite you deep into their lives. Their stories, told with empathy and intelligence, will sweep away the myths around mental illness. In tackling this subject, we are employing our entire storytelling kit in print and online: text, photography, graphics, audio, slide shows, video.

In addition to Alyse, you will meet Peter O'Neill, a once-successful criminal lawyer suffering from bipolar disorder, and his remarkably devoted family, which now spends too much time on suicide watch. You will meet Jesse Bigelow and his parents, Susan and Jay, who will relate how schizophrenia stole Jesse away and how he was reborn through "luck and love." You will meet a successful executive who suffers from a near-debilitating anxiety disorder, but somehow perseveres.

In all of them, you will see not strangers but reflections of yourselves and your loved ones.

We will also explain how public policies are failing when it comes to mental illness. And we will take you to Scotland, a place that has risen to the challenge and has much to teach the rest of the world.

It is far too easy for the media to simply overwhelm audiences with the hopelessness of it all, which is why we strive in major journalistic undertakings such as Breakdown to go from real people with real problems to the attendant social-policy failures to achievable scientific and public-policy solutions.

This week, two hockey greats, Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson and former Montreal Canadiens legend Guy Lafleur, have spoken out about the mental-health challenges within their own families. They have set an example we hope you will emulate.

The time has come to speak your mind, to erase the stigma of mental illness and acknowledge the contribution that those with mental-health issues, such as Alyse, can make to society. Help us by going to globeandmail.com and telling your stories, as Alyse and Daniel Alfredsson have done. The more of us who do that, the more mental illness will be accepted as a normal part of life. And the more it is accepted, the more we can do to adopt the proper policies and combat it.

On April 5, 1890, The Globe ran a mammoth story on its front page called At The Asylum (which is abridged in today's paper and reproduced in full on the Web). "Insanity," it began. "Does not the word bring to the recollection of almost every reader some face a friend, a relative perhaps of one who, though living, is counted among the dead?"

Is it not time to do something about it? Speak Your Mind.

Edward Greenspon