Brand building through storytelling

Mental illness and the REAL talking cure

Early in my tenure as Editor of Chatelaine, I let my readers in on a secret. I had suffered from depression that took hold of me in childhood and did not let go until my mid-thirties. In its grip, I hid behind a mask of competence–meeting every deadline as a busy freelance writer and making fettuccine from scratch because my family deserved the best. No one saw me spend entire days crying.  At my lowest low, I realized that I couldn’t keep up my charade. Terrified of being exposed as a fraud, I finally called a mental health clinic.

When I first told this story in a 1997 editorial, you didn’t hear a lot about mental illness. The media ignored it; public figures generally kept their demons to themselves. I was speaking up for all the Chatelaine readers who were silently struggling with their own or a loved one’s mental illness, but also for the anxious child I used to be. I grew up in the shadow of my father’s drinking—rooted in a lifetime of untreated depression—and my mother’s rage at her choice of husband. I learned early that our anguish could never be acknowledged, much less named. By outing myself, I was taking the padlock off my tongue.

People told me I was brave, although I felt more exultant than courageous. I’d been well for 10 years, and I was thriving at the top of my profession. But as heartfelt letters poured in from all over this country, I learned just how risky it can be to speak frankly about mental illness. One reader, who’d survived a suicide attempt, confided that a friend had told her, “Everyone has troubles. You just caved in.” People who’d reclaimed their lives on anti-depressants were being chided by their nearest and dearest for using a “chemical crutch.” (Does anyone call insulin a “chemical crutch?) The most poignant letters ended with some version of the plea “If you print this, please don’t use my name or my career will be in trouble.”

These people were turning to me because they knew almost no one else to trust with the unspeakable truth about themselves. They felt utterly alone, even though mental illness will strike one in five of us at some point in our lives. They had all been silenced by age-old stigma dating back to Neolithic times, when those who seemed a little odd were candidates for brutal surgery: holes cut in their skulls to release evil spirits. The mentally ill have been hidden in the family basement, chained to asylum walls and paraded to amuse anyone with a penny to spare. In Canada and elsewhere, they have been sterilized without consent—a practice that continued in Alberta until 1972.

You don’t have to know the details of this legacy of shame to feel its lingering taint. Fear of stigma goes a long way toward explaining why 60 percent of people with a mental illness still do not reach out for help. They figure they’ll be told to pull up their socks. And they could very well be right. Almost half of us believe that a diagnosis of mental illness is an excuse for bad behavior, according to a national survey by the Canadian Medical Association. Forty-two percent would stop socializing with a friend who had a mental illness. In the twenty-first century, ancient fears still cast anyone with a disorder of the mind as unreliable, unworthy, unfit for challenge.

But I’m not here to tell you how bad things are. In fact, I’ve never seen so many reasons for hope.

Word is out that mental illness has touched some of the most admired achievers of our time: Bruce Springsteen, David Beckham, J.K. Rowling, Robert Munsch, Angelina Jolie and Silken Laumann, among many others who have come forward in recent years. This wave of honesty has yet to reach the corridors of power in any significant way, but we do have a Cabinet Minister, Lisa Raitt, who talks about her bout with postpartum depression. And Orlando Da Silva, new president of the Ontario Bar Association, recently admitted to a lifetime of depression that he medicated with sleeping pills and alcohol, very nearly killing himself. Friends warned that speaking up would hurt his reputation but Da Silva was determined to help other lawyers overcome their fear of stigma and seek treatment.

By speaking about the unspeakable, those who have faced mental illness are creating a transformative public conversation, one story at a time. Even tragic stories are bringing hope to people who had none. When Robin Williams took his life last August, suicide hotlines reported an unprecedented two-month spike in calls. And countless people like my friend Karen took the padlocks off their tongues. When Karen admitted on Facebook that she’d once been hospitalized for depression, her post got 85 likes and comments like “You’re inspiring!” Privately, she told me there are people in her life who don’t get it, who treat her differently because of her illness. But at least she’s seen proof that they’re the ones with the problem.

It’s because so many people are telling the truth that mental illness is finally on the national agenda, attracting the attention once reserved for heart disease and cancer—philanthropic donations in the tens of millions, heavyweight corporate sponsors (notably Bell, which has committed more than $73 million)  and serious coverage in the press. When The Globe and Mail launched an award-winning series on mental health in 2008, I knew my cause had come of age, just as breast cancer did years ago.

I remember when you weren’t supposed to talk about breasts, and shame prevented women from showing suspicious lumps to their doctors. A friend’s mother died of the disease because she waited too long, just as many with depression still do. I’ve come to think of mental illness as a cancer of the soul. And make no mistake: it can be fatal. Every year 4,000 Canadians take their own lives. Many are shockingly young: only accidents kill more 15-to-24-year-olds than suicide. We’re finally starting to confront the truth. It’s no longer unheard-of for obituaries to replace the code word “suddenly” with “died by suicide.”

Eighteen years have passed since I wrote about depression in Chatelaine. Rereading that landmark editorial today, I’m struck by how much I left out. The guilt at missing my son’s childhood. The fantasies involving a bathtub and a razor blade. The irrational wish to trade places with a friend who was dying of cancer, because she loved her life and mine was just a burden. I wasn’t ready for the world to see the whole truth beside the photo of my executive self, perfectly coiffed in a red power dress with pointy lapels. I was groping for courage, with some distance to go.

But here’s the thing: courage is catching. I’ve come full circle, drawing from stories like Orlando Da Silva’s what Chatelaine readers once drew from me. I feel part of a movement that gathers clout and urgency with each new disclosure. People once overlooked and shunned are banding together to press for action. We’re speaking out on campuses, educating employers and creating free walk-in clinics. We’re changing your workplace, your school, your community. And we’ve only just begun.

Published in 49th Shelf, March 20, 2015.


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