By Richard Handler, CBC News Posted: Feb 20, 2012 5:17 PM ET Last Updated: Feb 20, 2012 5:16 PM ET
About The Author:
Richard Handler is a producer with the CBC Radio program Ideas.
The magnificent Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes was recently on CBC Radio’s Q, talking about her battles with depression and her involvement with Bell Let’s Talk campaign to combat the stigma of mental illness.
A speed skater and cyclist who has won medals in both the Summer and Winter Games, Hughes is without doubt a remarkable achiever, a Canadian hero.
Who wouldn’t be captivated by her cheerful tone and champion’s demeanor?
Yet, as she tells it, she slid into the darkness of depression after she won her first Olympic medals in the 1996 games in Atlanta. “I imploded,” she says.
Looking back, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason for the mood swing. Sure, she drove herself, but all competitors do.
But the pure randomness of her descent just adds to her message: if this happened to me, an intense striver, a disciplined person, it can happen to you.
Olympic medalist Clara Hughes, part of a five-year campaign to heighten awareness of mental health issues. (Canadian Press)
So today Hughes shares her story and tells us not to be ashamed of the plunge into the chaos of mental misery and bleakness.
Judging by the fans who greet her on the street, her message seems to be resonating.
One in five Canadians, we are told, suffer from some mental illness or mood disorder.
The statistics are being bandied about by celebrities and experts, both of whom tell us that mental illness is, after all, an illness. So, fight mislabeling. Fight the stigma.
I have heard this many times. You wouldn’t be embarrassed by diabetes, experts will say. Or by heart disease. After all, you are not your pancreas, or your arteries.
Even cancer, once a disease that patients were often ashamed to admit having, is not spoken of in hushed tones anymore. Many of us wear proud pink (or blue) ribbons in the fight against breast (or prostate) cancer.
Unfortunately, mental illness is trickier than that.
Most of us don’t identify in any real way with a cancerous tumour, should it take hold. But we do identify, intensely, with our minds, as representing something about the content of our character.
If our moods have grown poisonous, malignant, we can’t help taking it personally.
Just ask yourself if you can separate the personality of a depressed or highly anxious individual suffering from a mood disorder from the sense you have of that person.
It might be unfair. But a person’s mood disorder is often seen as an intrinsic part of him or her.
In many cases, the only way you can admit to having a mood disorder or a mental illness is to proclaim that you have recovered from it, or that it is so well managed that it’s really not crippling.
This happens, most tellingly, at the very heart of the psychological and psychiatric establishment.
Worthy mental health institutions, like the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, enlist athletes and entertainers to announce that they, or a close family member, suffer from mood disorders.
But would the good doctors and administrators themselves admit to suffering from depression? I think that is highly unlikely.
The stigma at work
Here’s an example of this stigma at work.
I used to attend a yearly psychotherapy conference in the U.S. where it was common for presenters to give talks on how they had overcome their depression or anxiety or worse.
It was all very educational and upbeat.
But I can’t ever remember anyone saying they still had a problem managing their moods. Only the victors spoke. If someone continued to struggle, it was so downplayed as to be insignificant.
I also know a prominent editor of a psychology magazine who underwent two breakdowns and a horrible, disabling depression.
Nothing worked. Not any of the fancy psychotherapies, or the drugs. He had to take a leave of absence.
Eventually, he underwent electro-shock treatment. None of this was ever mentioned in the magazine he edited. His editors assembled the publication without him there, ghost writing his opening remarks.
Now his is a story that might have been useful to share. A true moment of courage and an opportune platform. But apparently, it was nobody else’s business.
Understandable, sure. But what a wonderful opportunity squandered.
Another factor that complicates all this business of combating the stigma surrounding mental illness is that, unlike fighting prostate or breast cancer, wrestling with a mood disorder requires willpower. (Just ask those who attend Alcoholics Anonymous.)
The dominant talk therapy these days is something called cognitive behavioural therapy.
It employs “thought records” and teaches patients to use counter-arguments to fight through the “distorted thinking” that conditions like depression can bring about.
It’s all very rational. But to do it properly you can’t be lazy. It takes work and character, call it what you may.
When you hear Clara Hughes talk about managing her depression, you can’t help but think that her astonishing discipline is a crucial factor in her getting back on her feet again. (As it was, surely, with Winston Churchill and his recurring battles with what he called the “black dog” of depression.)
But those of us who have witnessed the self-destructive spirals of friends and family members understand the dilemma here all too well.
It may be unfair, but many of those afflicted simply have no capacity, no extra source of willpower or discipline, to battle their demons (to use an old-fashioned term).
So yes, let’s try our hardest to overcome the stigma of mental illness.
But we should probably bear in mind that no pleading or cheerful celebrity is going to banish that stigma completely without us admitting that it is very deep-seated, and that mental illness is not just any “ordinary illness.”
Those who suffer and fight the good fight must be encouraged, though many, all too many, may falter and fail.