Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mental health system lacking funds, awareness

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Ok, hands up everybody who knows that this is Mental Illness Awareness Week in Canada.

Oh. You didn't know? Well, you're not alone.

Odds are you knew Sunday was the date of the breast cancer Run for the Cure campaign, though. Everyone knows that.

Public awareness is a vital first step in battling an illness. Breast cancer has set the gold standard for this. We are constantly urged to participate in marathons, weekend camp-outs and golf tournaments; we wear pink ribbons and cheer breast-cancer survivors paddling dragon boats. The money raised will surely someday find a cure. In the meantime, the sheer energy and enthusiasm from supporters helps everyone, especially the patients.

Mental illness is as physically and emotionally devastating as cancer, but it gets diddly squat in terms of public attention.

"I would do anything to have breast cancer over mental illness... because I would not have to put up with the stigma," said Helen. Helen is one of many patients interviewed for the 2006 Senate Report on Mental Illness titled Out of the Shadows at Last.

I know exactly what Helen is saying. Stigma is rampant.

At a dinner I attended a while back, the guest speaker used the term "dysfunctional schizophrenic" to make a point. No one batted an eyelash. If he had referred to someone with breast cancer as a "flat-chested cancerite," I suspect the audience reaction would have been different.

Many Canadians do not understand that schizophrenia is a biological illness like breast cancer.

Most people know about breast cancer, but what do we know about schizophrenia?

We've all heard the very scary statistic that one in nine women will develop breast cancer "in her lifetime." Scary, yes, but a bit misleading. The statistic is true if a woman lives into her 90s and doesn't die of something else.

One in 100 Canadians will develop schizophrenia if they reach the ripe old age of 20. Schizophrenia appears suddenly, out of nowhere, and afflicts young people -- men and women equally -- just as their adult lives are starting out.

The main symptom is bizarre behaviour. Patients may refuse to turn on the TV, citing certain "dangerous" channels. They may unplug the fridge or wear a winter jacket on a hot summer day. They often self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. They may insist that God is talking to them. Listless and reclusive, they become suspicious of everyone, especially those trying hardest to help -- their families and health-care professionals.

Misconceptions abound. Schizophrenia is not a "split personality" and is not caused by a traumatic event in childhood. Schizo-phrenia literally means a "split" from reality. Patients have a medical condition called psychosis, which causes them to perceive things differently from you and me.

Diagnosis is difficult and can take years. Meanwhile, the condition worsens, often to the point of no return. There are no screening tests for schizophrenia -- no "brainograms" or blood tests. The diagnostic method -- basically a psychiatric checklist -- has not changed for decades.

Helen could have gone further. It's more than stigma that causes problems for people with mental illness. How about neglect? An estimated 50 to 75 per cent of the dirty, shambling human beings that rant and rave along downtown streets are victims of untreated mental disorders.

About 10 to 14 per cent of patients with schizophrenia commit suicide. This is because for many, the disease is unbearable. Many more will die far younger than expected lifespans due to intolerable life conditions caused by stigma, loneliness and neglect.

No human being should have to experience what our mentally ill people encounter every day in this country.

Antipsychotic drugs offer the most successful treatment. The newer drugs are more effective and have fewer of the awful side-effects.

Costs are a major concern, and hospitalization continues to be the main cost for our beleaguered health-care system.

For my breast-cancer surgery, I was in and out of hospital in 24 hours.

My loved one with a mental illness has been hospitalized for nine of the last 12 months.

Public awareness is vital in battling an illness. I believe if Canadians knew more about mental illness, we'd all be walking, running, golfing and paddling to support our friends, family and neighbours who have mental disorders. We'd be giving money to help find a cure or to support patients in need of housing.

Maybe we'd even wear a ribbon. If it hasn't already been taken, I pick the colour red. It's my loved one's favourite colour.

Marilyn Baker is a freelance writer in Richmond, B.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 2, 2012 A9

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