Wednesday, January 27, 2016

It's #BellLetsTalk Day: Talking is good. Doing is better

Mental illness affects one in five Canadians - meaning there's a reasonable chance it's already touched either you, a family member, or a friend.

By 2020, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Foundation projects depression will be the world's #1 cause of disability. Here in Canada, the Canadian Medical Association estimates mental illness accounts for 15% of all health care costs - or $50 billion every year. It is also a driver of poverty: Two-thirds of Canada's homeless have experienced mental illness, and someone who suffers from mental illness will live 10 years less than the average Canadian.

The numbers are frightening. And you'd think we'd be doing more to address this. Yet mental illness isn't like cancer or a broken leg. It isn't the kind of disease that gets countless people wearing pink ribbons or signing casts. It's the one illness no one wants to discuss for fear of being stigmatized, marginalized, left behind. Don't tell your boss, the thinking goes, because in this age of precarious job prospects and mass layoffs, it could get you fired. Or it could keep you from being hired in the first place.

So it's no surprise that, according to the CMA, two-thirds of mental health sufferers do so in silence. The Canadian Mental Health Association CMHA says that stigma not only keeps people from seeking and receiving treatment, but it's also a barrier to broader acceptance within the community. Rock, meet hard place.

Bell is holding its 6th annual Bell Let's Talk Day today, and in fairly short order it's become one of this country's highest-profile initiatives to finally break the silence that surrounds mental illness. It raises money - every time a subscriber makes a mobile or long distance call or sends a text, the company will donate 5 cents to mental health initiatives, while it'll make the same donation whenever anyone tweets or posts to Facebook using the #BellLetsTalk hashtag - but it also raises awareness.

All well and good. And awareness is the first step toward reducing the cost - to individuals, to those who love them, to colleagues and society at-large - and ensuring those who need help do, in fact, receive it in the same way they would if they were suffering from any other disease.

But we can't simply talk. We must act. We must change the way we view others, the way we deal with those who may be suffering in silence. We must be kinder and more empathetic. We must be better at recognizing the signs and positioning ourselves to offer genuine help.

One day each year to raise national awareness and funds is an amazing, inspiring and important start. But the game won't be over until this becomes part of our everyday reality, where we all run toward those who suffer, and not away from them. And until those who suffer feel comfortable enough to share their stories without fear of losing even more than they already have.

Your turn: To participate, share a tweet or Facebook post using the #BellLetsTalk hashtag. If you're a Bell subscriber, make a call on your mobile phone or call someone long distance. And don't be afraid to be that person who recognizes the signs. Just be there. Because sooner or later, mental illness touches us all.

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