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Ending the stigma of mental illness in Maple Ridge
For many struggling with mental illness, theirs is a fight that takes place within, leaving them to suffer in silence.
The stigma and shame often associated with mental illness prevents many from seeking the treatment they need, along with the feelings of alienation mental disorders themselves can cause. Without help and treatment, many end up losing their fight with mental illness.
Statistics Canada reported more than 11,500 deaths associated with mental illness and behavioural issues last year, including close to 3,500 suicides.
In 2007, suicide was the second leading cause of death for men aged 15 to 34, and women aged 15 to 24.
Dozens of mental health advocates, health care workers, and mental illness sufferers gathered in downtown Maple Ridge Thursday for the Mental Health For All. The event was aimed to raise awareness about mental illness, and help reduce the stigma associated with it.
The term “mental illness” covers a wide spectrum of ailments, says registered nurse Judy Russell, including depression and anxiety, schizophrenia, developmental disorders such as autism, and degenerative illnesses like Alzheimer’s.
Russell is the coordinator for the Maple Ridge Mental Health Centre, which gets more than 1,000 referrals every month. However, because mental illness is still perceived as a sign of weakness, many don’t seek the treatment they need.
“These people struggle with an illness, and need to be able to seek out help without feeling stigmatized,” said Russell.
The attitude that someone who is depressed or anxious “just needs to snap out of it,” is pervasive, and harmful.
“You would never say that to someone with cancer or a disability,” she said. “But people don’t take it as seriously as a physical illness, because mental illness is not so overt, it’s less tangible.”
Those who do seek help from mental health professionals often find positive results.
“People can get better, they can live a normal life,” she said.
A major step in living with mental illness is understanding what triggers psychosis, depression, or anxiety. Helping people avoid those triggers, and learn how to cope with them can make all the difference to some. Diet and exercise can also play constructive roles.
“Depression does affect the chemicals in the brain,” said Russell. “It is an illness, it’s not in their imagination.”
Locally, suicide rates are 20 per cent lower than the national average, and Russell hopes that by changing the public’s perception of mental illness, more people will seek treatment and that rate will fall even further.
The Fraser North Health Services Area recorded a suicide rate of 7.8 per 100,000 people in 2011, compared with 8.8 province-wide, according to Statistic Canada.
Suicide rates have also been falling steadily across the country. In 2004, the national suicide rate was 11.3 per 100,000, but that number fell to 11.0 in 2007, and to 10.2 in 2011.
“We’ve come a long way to reduce the stigma, but we have a long way to go,” said Russell.