Would you tell a cancer patient to just “suck it up”?

From a posting by RICK OWEN to Northern News, July 3, 2009

Recently a woman [someone who is dealing with mental health issues similar to mine] asked me if I was going to write any more columns about mental health.

She told me that when she read my column she could see herself in it. I am very lucky in that I have an avenue to share what I’ve been through, and I am still going through, with other people. It is in fact therapeutic for me.

If by sharing I’m able to help even one person, that is a bonus.

Although I was planning on writing more columns on mental health and addiction, I wasn’t going to write another so soon — but then I read a newspaper story online this morning, and that all changed.

One of the points I was trying to make in past columns is that mental health issues and addictions affect people of all ages and all stations in life. They are not diseases of the rich or of the working or of the poor or of the young.

These diseases don’t attack only the lonely and unsuccessful but they can make successful people lonely and can drive them to living in the streets or the depths of poverty.

In the worst-case scenario, mental health issues and addictions  are fatal. Mental illness is a fatal disease and our society should give it the same priority, profile and funding as it does many other fatal diseases. The same holds true for addiction.

They are diseases that cost our economy billions of dollars. While I don’t have the statistics, I know from my own experience that when I’m not well mentally, my production drops off dramatically both in volume and quality.

The story I came across this morning is about a former Member of Parliament in Saskatchewan. As Dave Batters’ struggle with depression and anxiety grew and he became dependent on prescription drugs, he chose not to run for re-election and went public with his health problems.

At age 39, Batters took his own life at his Regina home. He had had treatment that people close to him hoped would enable him to over come his depression and anxiety, but tragically he lost his battle. Mental illness and addiction are both fatal diseases.

I have often heard it said that suicide is the easy way out, but from what I personally have experienced, I view suicide as the final stage in a fatal disease.

I don’t really expect people who do not have mental health issues and/or addictions to fully understand this, because they have never been there. It would be like me trying to understand the severe pain caused by cancer. I can’t do that because I haven’t been there, but I do know it is a very painful disease.

That perhaps is one of the differences between mental health issues and physical health issues. People understand that physical diseases cause pain and they would never say to a person with cancer “suck it up and get on with life.”

Few people understand the mental pain, the hopelessness the feeling of worthlessness caused by mental health issues and/or addiction. I would never say pain caused by physical illness and pain caused mental health/addiction are the same. They are very different but can be equally debilitating–and fatal.

Just as with fatal physical diseases, a great deal of progress has been made in treating mental health disorders and addiction. There is a lot of hope for people who can overcome the stigma attached to mental health issues and addiction if they get  treatment.

There is hope of living a normal life. Nine months ago I was hospitalized because of mental health issues that I was self-medicating with alcohol. The night I went to the hospital I didn’t think I had a future worth living. Now, through treatment for depression, anxiety and addiction, I look at life very differently. I look forward to each day and the challenges it will bring. Once again I can deal with whatever life throws my way.

I am one of the lucky ones, I found the right psychiatrist, an excellent social worker at the Canadian Mental Health Association, and a treatment centre (Homewood), and I have family and friends who, while they may not understand, do support and encourage me.

It is not easy, and I must constantly work on lifestyle changes that will improve my mental health, but really that is not different from the efforts of a cancer survivor with aftercare to remain healthy.

As with cancer, I could have a relapse for reasons I may or may not recognize. It is no less serious or discouraging to have a mental health/addiction relapse then it is to have a relapse with a physical disease. The only hope in both cases is more treatment.

It is my dream that, with more and more people going public with their mental health and addiction struggles, some day soon the stigma surrounding these diseases will disappear. People will no longer suffer alone in fear of what others will think. That will be real progress in the treatment of mental health issues and addiction.