Time to kill the black dog before the black dog kills us

“I think this man might be useful to me – if my black dog returns. He seems quite away from me now – it is such a relief. All the colours come back into the picture.”  
―Former Canadian Prime Minister Winston Churchill

 

Anxiety and depression have plagued me for as long as I can remember.

Even now in my late twenties, I still wrestle with irrational fear and paralyzing sadness on a somewhat regular basis. I’ve lost track of the days and hours spent in bed, incapable of leaving my apartment – paralyzed by hopelessness and frozen by indescribable fear of nothing.

Mental illness has cost me grades, jobs, relationships, friendships – and it’s taken years off my young life (and probably that of my parents). With only intermittent and insufficient health coverage, scrounging up money for effective psychotherapy and prescription medication has been difficult and sometimes impossible.

Accessing help – especially waiting for professional help – can be a living hell.

Struggles aside, though, I’m been lucky. I’ve had help from good doctors, great therapists, and a network of family and friends who’ve stepped in to support me when things got desperate. All this has meant that I’ve been able to live to tell my story. Many will never be so fortunate.

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It is truly heartbreaking that as another Mental Health Week has come to pass, far too many Canadians – including children, seniors and marginal demographics – are struggling psychologically. Even more unsettling is the fact that in a country as “caring” and “generous” as Canada, each day struggling minds are falling through our institutional cracks. They’re alone.

Around 450 million people worldwide live with a mental illness, and a whopping 20% of Canadians are expected to develop a diagnosis at some point in their lifetime. The Canadian Mental Health Association reports that Canada’s youth suicide rate is the third highest in the industrialized world. And yet, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, mental health care is drastically underfunded compared to other parts of the Canadian healthcare system. That’s just unacceptable.

Winston Churchill had depression (or so many suspected) and famously described his plight as akin to living with a big ‘black dog’ beside him. In 2012, the World Health Organization sought to destigmatize mental illness by sharing the I Had a Black Dog story – a vivid and palpable depiction of life with depression online (don’t even try to keep a dry eye watching that video, if you haven’t seen it).

Few in the generations preceding ours would dare disclose a psychological diagnosis willingly or publically for fear of scrutiny, or worse. Today the stigmatic weight borne by those with mental illness has lifted somewhat, but too many cultural norms and public institutions – like our overwhelmed and understaffed public healthcare system – still seem to be failing us.

According to the Mood Disorder Society of Canada’s 2015 pan-Canadian survey of the country’s mental health community, the Canadian healthcare system is critically underperforming for individuals with mental illness. Our system is so insufficient and inaccessible that few Canadians will ever even discover they have a treatable mental illness. Without access to affordable medication or treatment, there are countless people who live out their entire lives under the influence of more accessible ‘medicines’ like drugs and alcohol just to cope.

If you’re young and you’ve fallen ill, you might find some solace in knowing there’s literally thousands more falling alongside you. Postsecondary campuses are exploding with anxious and miserable students. Just last year the Ontario University and College Health Association published a survey of more than 25,000 students that found 13 per cent of those surveyed had attempted suicide and 65 percent had experienced overwhelming anxiety.

Before writing this, I toiled for hours over whether I should out myself as someone who has struggled psychologically – or to disclose that more than once in my life I’ve found myself hospitalized when I was at my worst, and that I’ve thought many times, somewhat seriously, about ending my own life.

Literally everyone I’ve ever opened up to about my ‘black dog’ over the years has told me that they knew or loved someone in the same boat, or one similar.

In February of this year, the Ontario Liberals earmarked $140 million over three years for mental health and addictions services. Federally, the Canada Health Accord is said to focus targeted funding investments into better mental healthcare infrastructure. The Health Accord negotiations nearly fell through last year after several provinces refused to sign on – but Ontario, Quebec and Alberta eventually managed to reach an agreement with Ottawa.

Here’s hoping that turns the tide.

 

 

 

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