By Yvonne Sam
In Canada, the first week in May is designated as Mental Illness Awareness Week, and one day of that is devoted to schizophrenia awareness.
From the standpoint of a qualified mental health professional and a concerned citizen, I daresay that we need more than a week, in any given year, to be aware of mental health and its impact on our society.
That time is far too short.
We need time to not only be aware of the illness, but also time to collectively ponder on our treatment of those among us, who have mental illness, and press for political action to right that wrong.
In consonance with the Canadian Mental Health Association, the purpose of the week is to inspire people, from all walks of life, to learn, talk, reflect and engage with others on all issues relating to mental health.
The week came and went like any other week, with few people knowing or even caring about its significance, although we are encouraged by Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, to #get loud for mental health.
Incidentally, our American neighbors have been celebrating Mental Health Awareness Month since 1949.
Tackling the bull by the horns, it is glaringly evident, even to the mildly myopic, that our culture does not view mental illness in the same manner as other major medical conditions, such as cancer.
Now is the time for us to be honest with ourselves, and start talking about what we really feel about mental health and mental health treatment, so that the government and health care system is forced to take notice and spring into action.
We can no longer afford to enrobe mental illness in a blanket-like shroud and pretend as if it does not exist, despite the glaring statistics. The single disabling disorder among our youth is mental illness, while suicide is the second-leading cause of death of our young people.
According to Statistics Canada, 1 out of 5 Canadians will experience mental illness in their lifetime, 1.3 million young Canadians have a mental disorder or addiction and First Nation youths are at higher risk of suicide (Statistics Canada, 2014).
Mental health care facilities lack the brilliance and luster, as mega-hospitals and cancer-care facilities, with state of the art technology, spring up everywhere, taking center stage. Also missing from this gloomy portrayal is the investment in research, treatment and care resources.
Governments do not make promises to cure mental illness like they do with cancer.
Another glaring fact is, despite its predominance, only seven percent of our publicly-funded health care spending is allocated to mental health care.
While Canada may not boast of a perfect cancer care system, nevertheless facts support it being one of the most trustworthy parts of our health care system. Better must be done.
Where were the actors, athletes and celebrities during Mental Health Awareness Week?
Was the media utilized to its fullest so that Canadians, at large, were afforded the opportunity to be aware of this ever-present situation in our midst? Or was aware replaced by fear?
We need these celebrities that run the gamut from athlete to broadcaster, such as, Olympic medalist, Clara Hughes, Margaret Trudeau and Elizabeth Manley, to continue standing up to raise awareness on mental health, and help eliminate the stigma.
However, awareness is not only about the government and increased spending.
Communities are responsible for survival of themselves and, as such, are called upon to do better, by recognizing mental illness in the same way they recognize cancer, being more responsive and educated and begin, or continue, talking about it more openly.
In addition to the health care system managing cancer differently from mental illness, the community also organizes walks, runs, bowl-a-thons, telethons and a foundation for every cancer.
Setting the record straight: we must face it before we can ace it — the reality of mental illness is not going away.
Desperately needed and in the now, are programs to be put in place for the next generation of people affected.
Mahatama Mohandas Gandhi is quoted as saying that the greatness of a country is judged by the way it treats its weakest members, and the mentally ill certainly falls into that category.
Yvonne Sam, a retired Head Nurse and Secondary School Teacher, is Vice-president of the Guyana Cultural Association of Montreal. A regular columnist for over two decades with the Montreal Community Contact, her insightful and incursive articles on topics ranging from politics, human rights and immigration, to education and parenting have also appeared in the Huffington Post, Montreal Gazette, XPressbogg and Guyanese OnLine. She is also the recipient of the Governor General of Canada Caring Canadian Citizen Award.