Facing mental illness

  • Oct. 25, 2004 9:00 a.m.

Submitted by Frank Wal–October 4 to 10 was Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW), an annual national public education campaign designed to help open the eyes of Canadians to the reality of mental illness. I was asked by a friend, a mental health clinician in Queen Charlotte, to write an article bringing attention to mental health concerns. The theme for MIAW in 2004 was “Face Mental Illness”; its mission – to put a human face on mental illness by sharing the stories of those who live with it. This should not be a difficult task when you consider that one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness during their lifetime. A 2001 study by the World Health Organization found that “mental illness (including depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia) accounts for 25-percent of all disability across major industrialized countries”. Still, the myths and stigma surrounding mental illness often prevent people from getting the help they need. Often people with a mental illness fear repudiation by their community. So why was I asked to write this article?
In 1997, I was diagnosed with a mental illness: bi-polar disorder. This is a condition marked by extreme moods alternating from depression-a prolonged sense of worthlessness; to mania – a state of rapid thought, irritability, and grandiose ideas. There is no cure, but symptoms can be managed with proper treatment. If not treated, the symptoms generally increase in severity. There is also evidence that the earlier an illness is detected the better its chances of being successfully treated. What I hope this article will achieve is to encourage anyone who might have a mental illness, diagnosed or otherwise, to seek the help they need, trust the professional care givers and believe that life can return to normal.
In my case, the illness progressed in stages: 1) Very early signs only recognised in retrospect; 2) obvious symptoms that I tried to cope with on my own due to a mistrust of the “system”-the condition worsened. 3) Was eventually diagnosed but refused medication-the condition worsened. 4) Took medication sometimes, but would stop abruptly and self-medicate with alcohol-the condition worsened. 5) became delusional and progressed into psychosis-I was hospitalised. 6) I began working with health care professionals, followed prescriptions and sought regular counselling- things improved. 7) I gave up alcohol altogether -things improved. 8) Having found a medication that worked for me, I began learning about negative thought patterns. I began to change the way I thought. 9) After a couple of years of relative stability and with the guidance of a psychiatrist I began reducing the amount of medication gradually over eighteen months to none- so far: stable.
I was lucky. Had I remained on my earlier course the illness would have taken a greater toll. Now, I keep tabs on my mood. There are still ups and downs, thankfully, but I know the warning signs that tell me that I’m heading towards depression or mania. I have learned techniques to pull myself back to middle ground. I’ve also made a promise to myself to go back to medication as soon as I feel myself wavering- before it progresses to a crisis situation. Like anyone with any medical condition, I have to limit some activities and give others up entirely. I am happy with the quality of my life.
Here are the messages that the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health hopes to get out through MIAW (from www.miaw-ssmm.ca):
First-reach out. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or to ask how you can help. This is a message for the family as well as for the person who is suffering alone and for all of us who know someone in trouble.
Get help early. Early intervention and treatment reduce long term disability from mental illness.
Talk about it. Share your stories to help others understand.
Share the care. Treatment and support of persons with mental illness involves many types of caregivers; each has an important role to play.
Hope. While there are no cures for severe mental illnesses, improved treatments and community supports offer increased hope for recovery from its symptoms and a better quality of life.
Finally, respect differences. People with mental illnesses and their families are as diverse as the general population.
Mental illness knows no boundaries; it can affect all people, regardless of age, culture, income and education.
We all have a role to play. Taking the time to learn about mental illness could make all the difference to you or to someone you care about. It’s important to watch for warning signs and to seek medical advice as soon as possible if any become apparent. There will be mental health information distributed at the Flu shot clinic, October 28 at the QC United Church annex.

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