I’m lifting the
following quote from the Globe and Mail’s superlative series about the mental
health care crisis in Canada. I’m not sure if you can access it if you live outside Canada, but I hope so - it’s excellent journalism from an excellent
Roughly a half
century ago, a report on the state of the mental health care system in Canada
had this to say:
'In no other field, except perhaps leprosy has there been
as much confusion, misdirection and discrimination against the patient as in
mental illness … Down through the ages, [the mentally ill] have been estranged by society and cast out to wander in the wilderness. Mental
illness, even today, is all too often considered a crime to be punished, a sin
to be expiated, a possessing demon to be exorcised, a disgrace to be hushed up,
a personality weakness to be deplored or a welfare problem to be handled as
cheaply as possible."
And here’s where
my two cents begins.
changed, except for the worse.
dwindling health care resources (Tommy Douglas
must be doing the watusi in his grave), the pace and pressures of modern life
increasingly hectic and that stigma still alive and well, the crisis is only
accelerating. The numbers are
astronomical: one in five Canadians
will suffer some form of mental illness at some point during their lifetime.
Because of the
stigma, the shame and the reluctance that people feel about admitting to
themselves and others that they are mentally ill, many of them will never seek
And let’s talk
about stereotypes for a second, shall we?
five. That’s huge. Odds are, with those sorts of numbers, your
picture of what a mentally ill person “looks” like is far off the mark. The majority of them are functioning,
contributing individuals though I can tell you from experience that many of the
profoundly ill will at some point wind up in the criminal justice system.
There are some
hideously violent and scary people who are mentally ill out there: I’m not
denying that. We had an incident in
Canada last month that shocked the entire country and made international news, but these people are in the minority. Sadly, those who find their way into the
criminal justice system, at least in Canada, are often cycled through it or
warehoused – though attempts are now being made to provide treatment to these
individuals while protecting society.
It’s not unachievable and in a civilized and democratic society, it is a
But the violent,
drooling killers are in the minority.
mostly talking about here are your soccer moms, your neighbours, your dentist,
your friends, your coworkers, maybe even you yourself.
Even the gifted
it: there can be enormous consequences
to “coming out”.
I have one
hero. Only one. But my admiration for this man is boundless
and I don’t know if I can adequately express it given my meagre talents.
His name is
Romeo Dallaire, a retired Canadian general who was in charge of the U.N.
mission in Rwanda during the genocide.
Despite all his desperate pleas to the U.N. and working with what
amounted to nothing more than a handful of soldiers, his voice went unheard and
almost an entire race of people was exterminated. He was widely reviled for his heroic efforts. He was even, at one point, blamed for not
preventing the genocide. He wrote a
book called “Shake Hands with the Devil” and there is a documentary by the same
name. It’s chilling, but required
reading if you’ve got a shred of humanity in you anywhere at all.
Here’s the short
version and I hope it whets your appetite to learn more about this remarkable
saw and was unable to prevent in Rwanda drove him mad. Upon his return to Canada, he sank into an
unimaginable depression and attempted suicide on several occasions. He was medically dismissed from the army and
his life spiralled out of control. This
culminated the night the Ottawa police found him intoxicated on a deadly
mixture of alcohol and antidepressants, passed out under a park bench.
This caused an
enormous scandal at the time here in Canada.
We were already outraged on his behalf (OK, I was outraged but I wasn’t
alone) and caused a huge debate about the rules of engagement for U.N.
a huge stink after the fact by suggesting, and quite openly too, that the
colour of those being slaughtered had much to do with how much assistance he
got (and that would be none) from the international community during the
rebuilt his life. He is quite candid
about his struggles with mental health.
I hesitate to say his story has a happy ending because I suspect the
murky places in his head are pretty horrifying, but he has moved on from a
place of unfathomable darkness to embrace new challenges.
I could go on
and on about the honours and recognition that have been so deservedly heaped
upon him since then, but you’re smart girls:
do your own homework.
He asked what is
now an iconic question (if you’re Canadian and tuned in, you will have heard
him pose it): “Are all humans human or
are some humans more human than others?”
(Are you seeing
why I want to have this man’s babies?)
He was speaking
of ethnicity, but in my view the same holds true for the mentally ill. Are the broken among us less valuable
because we are embarrassed by them?
Because we fear them? Because we
somehow consider them to be less than we are?
That answer cannot
possibly be “yes”.
We are, all of
us, links in a chain of humanity. One
life is never any more valuable than any other – not because its owner
is a certain colour, a certain ethnicity, has a certain amount of money, drives
a certain car, owns certain things, does a certain job, lives in a certain
place, wears a certain brand of clothes, worships a certain deity or has an
iron grip on a sunny personality all the time.
experience is a complex one: a diorama of emotions, some exhilarating, some
humbling, some heartbreaking. What
binds us together – or should bind us together – is the care we have for
each other. Our differences should
enrich us, not divide us. I was on the
point of saying “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers…” and then I
remembered I was a lapsed Catholic. But
I think you take my point.
If there is
shame here, the only place it belongs is at our own feet, for ignoring the
needs of those among us who are suffering, usually desperately and in silence.
groups have successfully demanded that their voices be heard and recent history
is full of examples: the civil rights
movement, the women’s movement, gay men and lesbians – but the mentally ill are
unique in that they may not be able to mobilize in the same way. The illnesses that plague them may prevent
them from organizing and persevering against the enormous bigotry that
continues to stigmatize them. It is up
to health care professionals, the media and the rest of us – that means each
and every one of you Heartless Bitches reading this right now -- to work to
erase this stigma and to create a climate where healing will happen.
is possible, but only if you address the illness.
The biggest part
of that illness is prejudice.
Till next time,