Blog Contributor Krystal Stokes is the Communications & Public Relations Manager at Victoria Lifeline. She also writes the Healthy Living Column in Lifestyles 55.
“The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say 'My tooth is aching' than to say 'My heart is broken'.” C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
In the last fifty years, advances in the field of medicine have helped our understanding of the prevention, diagnosis and management of physical disease. The result? People are living longer as the average life expectancy in Canada is now 82 years of age. In recent years, however, research has shown that mental health is an important component of overall health and well-being. In fact, a summary report by the World Health Organization (WHO) states unequivocally that, “There is no health without mental health.” Mental health is now on the forefront of many awareness campaigns and research projects for good reason. Mental health matters.
Think about the opening quote of the article for a moment. You make an appointment with the dentist when your tooth hurts or the doctor when you feel sick, but we don’t regularly check in on our mental health. Why is that? The lingering stigma attached to mental illness is a known barrier to treatment, and this is particularly true when it comes to older adults. The Mental Health Commission of Canada reports that more than 1.8 million Canadians over the age of 60 are living with a mental illness, with depression being the most common issue facing older adults.
So how did the negative stigma surrounding mental illness develop and how pervasive is the problem? A clinical overview of the stigma of mental illness from the University of Western Ontario and published in the Mens Sana journal dedicated to medicine and mental health, found that, “Stigma is universally experienced; it isolates people and delays treatment, which in turn causes great social and economic burden.” The authors theorize that the stigma likely resulted from a multitude of causes, including a lack of understanding of mental illness and the early separation of mental health treatment from the mainstream healthcare in the 19th century. The authors also concluded that stigma most certainly increases the duration of untreated mental illness.
In an overview of older adults and depression, the Mood Disorders Society of Canada affirmed that older adults don’t seek the treatment they need because, “many seniors were raised to be self-sufficient and stoic in the face of life’s challenges, making them reluctant to complain about how they are feeling or to ask for help. They are used to working hard to solve their own problems and are ashamed by their inability to cope.” Overcoming the reluctance to seek help is crucial for one overriding reason - if left untreated, depression can become a risk factor for suicide.
The positive news according to the Mood Disorders Society is that, “most people with depression (over 80 percent) respond well to treatment and achieve a complete and lasting recovery.” A first step then in improving mental health outcomes is to open the lines of communication. So let’s start talking. Mental illness touches all our lives. It has impacted people in my life that I love. The journey to recovery and wellness revealed a very important lesson, one that I will never forget – it takes an extraordinary amount of courage to ask for help.
Education, awareness and understanding the risk factors are also key components in breaking down the stigma of mental illness. The Mood Disorders Society lists several factors that can increase the risk of depression in older adults including living with chronic pain, a serious illness, living alone without a supportive network of friends and family, the recent death of a loved one, a previous history of depression, and the presence of other illnesses that may compromise a person’s ability to be independent.
If you or someone you love is struggling, contact the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba for more information on available resources or connect with your healthcare provider to access help.
This article is meant to be informational in nature and should not replace the advice of a trained healthcare professional.