Editorial: Tragedy in Sandy Hook highlights misunderstanding of mental illness
The horrible events of last Friday's school shooting in Newton, Connecticut, have led to widespread speculation as to the shooters' motives, including a tenuous link to mental illness as a possible factor.
This is problematic, as it further paints those with mental illness as violent and unstable. It also demonstrates how little the public understands mental illness.
Those who experience a mental illness are not "crazy", nor are they often violent.
The true face of mental illness is all too common. It may have stared back at you from the bathroom mirror.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in five Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Furthermore, mental illness indirectly affects all Canadians at some time, through a family member, friend or colleague.
Mental illness covers a wide variety of ailments, from anxiety disorders and depression to serious brain disorders like schizophrenia and dementia.
According to the World Health Organization, clinical depression was the third most important cause of disease burden worldwide in 2004, and was first among middle- and high-income countries.
Meanwhile, Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, according to Centre for Disease Control.
However, when it comes to public healthcare funding, mental health is often an afterthought.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses, with 10 to 20 per cent eventually dying from complications. Despite the fact that close to five per cent of Canadian women aged 15 to 25 suffer from anorexia and/or bulimia (according to a 1993 Statistics Canada survey), this country was without a publicly funded residential treatment facility for eating disorders until just two years ago.
This past summer saw the closure of Riverview Hospital, the province's only mental health-specific hospital.
Mental illness can result in death, suicide, and self harm. But these outcomes can often be prevented with proper treatment and care.
While mental illness can result in violent behaviour, according to the CMHA, people with mental health issues are no more violent than any other group in our society.
But unlike other diseases and conditions, such as cancer or diabetes, mental health rarely elicits strong funding support from the public.
As a result, there is less money for research and care.
But treatment for mental illness will not become a priority until we make it one.
Mental illness is a medical condition, not a defect of character, and those living with this disease deserve support, not scorn. Acceptance, not alienation.
A diagnosis of mental illness defines aspects of a person's cognitive experiences, but that is only part of who they are. We must be careful not to dismiss the whole person, as often it is easier to do so, rather than take the time to truly understand their diagnosis.
The sooner we as a society can accept these facts, the sooner we can reduce the social stigma many who suffer from this disease endure, as this stigma prevents many from seeking help.
We need to further our understanding of this widespread illness, not alienate those with a treatable medical condition.