Clara Hughes has just set off on an epic cycle around Canada in an effort to increase awareness of mental health. This event is a culmination of her efforts over the past several years to bring mental health into view so that we can learn about the issue. Called ‘Clara’s Big Ride’, the tour will take almost four months and cover 12,000 kilometres and encircles the country.
Mental illness has long been stigmatized. It’s a taboo topic in many families and in social circles, yet mental illness is something that touches all of us. Twenty percent of Canadians will experience some form of mental illness at some point in their lifetime. And for those that do not directly experience it, they will have a friend or family member who faces the challenges of mental illness. Mental illnesses affect people of all ages, educational and income levels and cultures.
The causes of mental illness are complex. They are an interplay of genetic, biological, personality and environmental factors, and the individual. Mental illness is characterized by changes in thinking, mood or behaviour associated with significant distress and impaired functioning over an extended period of time.
Mental illness takes many forms, the most common being mood disorders, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, personality disorders and eating disorders. The symptoms range from mild to severe depending on the type of illness, the individual and other factors. The onset of most mental illnesses occurs in adolescence and young adulthood.
Facing the challenges of mental illness is difficult enough for a person, but add in the judgement of society and the resulting stigma becomes yet another barrier to mental health. Stigma may prevent or delay a person from seeking treatment or to avoid sharing their concerns with family, friends or health service providers.
Why is there no stigma to having kidney or heart disease, or cancer? We don’t blame the individual for those diseases so why do we attach such judgement to people with mental illness?
The serious stigma and discrimination attached to mental illnesses are among the most tragic realities facing people with mental illness in Canada. These arise from superstition, lack of knowledge and empathy and old belief systems. Stigma also comes from a tendency to fear and exclude people who are perceived as different.
If we can develop widespread awareness and acceptance of the issue, we can also reduce the stigma of mental illness. This is the key to ‘Clara’s Big Ride,’ the aim of which is to educate people about mental illness as a first step towards reducing the stigma, and encouraging greater acceptance and understanding of mental illness.
It is no one’s ‘fault’ that they have an illness, be it mental or physical. Learning to understand this and knowing mental illness can strike anyone should mean that it is no longer an embarrassment to be mentally ill; it’s just another part of life, after all.