Every year in Canada, a number of days, weeks and even a month – October – are celebrated to foster greater awareness of mental health issues. Probably the best known, Bell Let’s Talk Day, like most others, focuses on creating a conversation to de-stigmatize mental illness.
This Mental Health Week (May 6-12) we should take a different tack, moving beyond de-stigmatizing mental illness, towards the promotion of personal growth and accountability.
Mental health experts and advocates have worked tirelessly to de-stigmatize mental illness, helping change the personal narrative for the legions of people who were forced to suffer in silence — or risk being told to just pull themselves up by the bootstraps.
Their efforts moved our understanding forward with campaigns such #SickNotWeak – explaining that mental illness was not a character flaw or a sign of weakness, and that it should elicit the same sympathy we have for individuals suffering from chronic ailments such as diabetes or arthritis.
We are seeing signs of their success all around us, in schools, businesses, government and sports as conversations on mental health have become the new normal.
The importance of the paradigm shift being affected thanks to their efforts cannot be understated.
The old paradigm fails to recognize that certain mental illnesses are deeply rooted in an individual’s genes, and may not respond to behavioural changes espoused by the ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ crowd.
Even in the cases where behavioural changes could significantly improve one’s mental health, they may not be in a position to make those changes.
For someone in a deep depression, the simple act of getting out of bed and showering may be out of reach – and to be told that they should exercise, go outdoors, or eat healthier would only add the feeling of failure to the profound suffering they are experiencing.
It is tantamount to telling someone who is without an income and flat broke, that if they’d like to improve their financial situation they should just start saving more.
But while the #SickNotWeak shift in our mental health discourse was an important one, it comes with its own problems.
This is because de-stigmatizing mental health is really only half the conversation — while it creates the environment for healing and personal growth, it fails to lay out a path toward realizing this growth.
For anyone who has lived in an environment where they felt forced to hide their mental illness or mental health struggles out of fear of judgment – to finally be told that it is not their fault will surely provide a welcome relief.
However, this relief is likely to be short lived.
By accepting that the state of your mental health is out of your control, you may also lose your hope for a brighter future, and ultimately, your sense of agency.
To shift how we view mental health we should first re-examine how we think about emotional states.
A common misconception is that the default emotional state for humans is one of joy and well-being, and that if you’re suffering through daily life this must mean that you are a victim of a chemical imbalance, a victim of your own biology.
When in reality our emotional systems evolved to signal whether our behaviour maps onto our desired goals, sense of self, and likelihood of gene-replication.
This means that if an individual’s life is in a state of disrepair, their emotional state may be very poor, while also being in the correct balance given their current position.
However, if an individual is doing everything right (by their own definition of ‘right’), and they are still in very poor mental health it is quite possible they are suffering from a chemical imbalance or a neurological disorder.
This is to say that while many uncomfortable mental states are the result of neurological disorders, others are intrinsic to human life.
To move our mental health discourse forward, we must recognize the complexity of mental health and illness, and the unique nature of all individuals.
We can do this by continuing to destigmatize mental health and illness, by starting the conversation from the foundation that no matter the reason for an individual’s mental health struggles they are worthy of dignity and free of blame.
From this starting point, we can then move forward by recognizing in others and ourselves the inherent capacity for healing and personal growth — be it through lifestyle changes, therapy, or medication.
And we must invest in making access to those strategies available to all.
This Mental Health Week I hope we can lift the burden of blame and hopelessness from the shoulders of those suffering because of poor mental health, and replace it with the lighter load of responsibility and the belief in brighter days to come.
Justin is a communications professional and mental health advocate based in Ottawa.