January 17 is Blue Monday. While the idea that the third Monday of January is the most depressing day of the year is pseudoscience at best, it does serve some purpose in drawing attention the very real issue of mental health.
This time of year is certainly a downer – a combination of winter weather, dark days, post-Christmas debt and broken New Year’s resolutions will do that – but for some it’s more than that, a reality that goes beyond Monday or January.
According to the World Health Organization, some 450 million people currently struggle with mental illness, making it the leading cause of disability worldwide. In Canada, it affects more than 6.7 million people. In fact, one in two Canadians have or have had a mental illness by the time they reach 40 years of age.
Depression is tied with high blood pressure as the number-one reason Canadians see a doctor. In a survey, 63 per cent of physicians reported that depression, anxiety disorders or stress-related issues had the fastest increase in cases they had seen over the last few years.
Mental illness is a leading cause of disability in this country, preventing nearly 500,000 employed Canadians from attending work each week. To make matters worse, the cost of disability leave as a result of mental illness is about double the cost of leave due to physical illness. All in, the economic burden of mental illness in Canada is an estimated $51 billion per year including health care costs, lost productivity and reductions in health-related quality of life, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
The pandemic has exacerbated the issue, taking an emotional toll on Canadians – the latest lockdown only serves to fuel the concerns of those caught on the rollercoaster. According to Canadian Mental Health Association surveys, 77% of adults report feeling so-called negative emotions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The five most common responses across Canada were ‘worried or anxious,’ ‘bored,’ ‘stressed,’ ‘lonely or isolated’ and ‘sad,’ according to the third round of data from the Assessing the Impacts of COVID-19 on Mental Health national monitoring survey CMHA.
While Canadians are more aware of mental health issues and we’ve made strides in countering the associated stigma – see, for instance, Bell’s annual Let’s Talk Day, set for January 26 – we still have a long way to go.
Many people keep quiet about their struggles, often hiding or masking mental health issues out of fear of being labelled. However, more of us realize that toughing it out isn’t any more suitable for the likes of anxiety and depression than it would be for a broken leg, ruptured appendix or cancerous tumour.
Fear and misunderstanding often lead to prejudice against people with mental illness and addictions, even among service providers. It’s one of the main reasons why many people don’t consider it a real health issue. This prejudice and discrimination leads to feelings of hopelessness and shame in those struggling to cope with their situation, creating a serious barrier to diagnosis and treatment. So much so, that stigma prevents some 40 per cent of people with depression or anxiety from seeking medical help.
Stereotypes about mental health conditions have been used to justify bullying. Some individuals have been denied adequate housing, health insurance and jobs due to their history of mental illness. Due to the stigma associated with the illness, many people have found that they lose their self-esteem and have difficulty making friends. Sometimes, the stigma attached to mental health conditions is so pervasive that people who suspect that they might have a mental health condition are unwilling to seek help for fear of what others may think, says the CMHA.
Given both the prevalence of mental health problems and the impact, personally and collectively, removing the stigma is a huge first step on the more difficult role of deal with the issues.