“I guess you have to be white to have a mental illness,” my mom said.
I looked up from my laptop to see a promo on CTV News Channel for Bell’s Let’s Talk day on January 27.
Indeed, there were no visible minorities in the newsreel – a representation that is far from the reality of Canada’s diversity, and the reality of mental illness.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) defines mental illness as “a wide range of disorders that affect mood, thinking and behaviour.” Depression, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and addictions are all examples of mental illnesses.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), 20 per cent of Canadians will have a mental illness at some point in their lives. Mental illness affects all Canadians indirectly through family, friends or colleagues.
Some languages do not even have words for the types of mental illnesses that are commonly diagnosed in the West.
Genetic, biological, personality and environmental factors can interact to cause mental illnesses, meaning they can affect Canadians of all ages, backgrounds, and education and income levels. Like other health problems, early and effective diagnosis of mental illness is key to its treatment.
That’s why talking about mental health in a way that is open and accepting is so important – and why immigrants can be at higher risk of not being treated.
More education, accessible services are imperative
A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) in 2011 found that while rates of depression and other disorders were lower for new immigrants than the general population, they rose over time.
Language and cultural differences can create barriers to seeking help. Some immigrants distrust mental health services because they have never had experience with them in their country of origin and are not accustomed to speaking openly about mental health issues. Some languages do not even have words for the types of mental illnesses that are commonly diagnosed in the West.
“Immigrants are less than half as likely to get professional help for depression compared to self-identified Canadians.”
A study by University of Toronto researcher Tahany Gadalla found “immigrants are less than half as likely to get professional help for depression compared to self-identified Canadians.” Gadalla said there are not enough programs geared towards educating people from different cultures about mental health issues.
Migration and resettlement can also create environmental stressors that contribute to mental health problems. Social and economic strain, social alienation, and discrimination are a few examples of these stressors. Refugees are at higher risk than the general population of developing specific psychiatric disorders as a result of exposure to war, violence, torture and forced migration.
Many of the Syrian refugees who are now arriving in Canada have experienced these types of traumas.
The CMAJ study states “immigrants and refugees are less likely than their Canadian-born counterparts to seek out or be referred to mental health services, even when they experience comparable levels of distress.”
This makes it imperative for Canada to prepare accessible services to support refugees as well as educate them about the importance of seeking help.
All Canadians must be a part of the conversation
CAMH provides resources in languages other than English, and put together a video for Let’s Talk Day that features a truer representation of the Canadians affected by mental illness than the Bell Let’s Talk promo I saw.
Across Boundaries is one of several mental health organizations that support people from ethno-racial communities in Toronto. It shows that there are discussions taking place within newcomer communities, but for some reason these aren’t portrayed in the broader national conversation.
For a large portion of Canadians, star power and re-tweets will not change their perception that mental illness is a problem they cannot experience, talk about or seek help to treat.
I noticed that the Let’s Talk website features the profile of Rwanda native Michel Mpambara, though he appears more prominently in the French-language campaign, presumably because he is a resident of Quebec.
Each January since 2010, on Let’s Talk Day, five cents for every call and text message sent on Bell’s network, as well as every Facebook share promoting the campaign, and every tweet using the hashtag #BellLetsTalk, is pledged towards mental health initiatives in Canada.
This year’s campaign raised over $6 million, which will be donated to research programs and organizations through Bell’s Community Fund.
People in the CAMH video acknowledge that simply seeing the words “let’s talk” sends a powerful message about starting a discussion on mental illness.
Let’s Talk has the backing of six-time Olympic medalist Clara Hughes, who acts as the campaign’s spokesperson, as well as comedian Mary Walsh, TV personality Howie Mandel, and singer Serena Ryder. As a social media campaign, it is especially relevant among youth, 10 to 20 per cent of whom are affected by mental illness.
But for a large portion of Canadians, star power and re-tweets will not change their perception that mental illness is a problem they cannot experience, talk about or seek help to treat.
We all need to take responsibility for our mental health – families, schools, employers, governments and media. Television, radio, newspapers, and now the Internet have the power to shape our perceptions of what is normal. A news agency has the added duty to represent the truth.
As one of Canada’s largest telecommunication companies, taking on the responsibility of leading a discussion about mental illness requires Bell to speak to all Canadians in order to make the most impact.
Rosanna Haroutounian is a freelance writer and the assignment editor at New Canadian Media. She studied journalism and political science at Carleton University and now splits her time between Quebec City and Peterborough, ON.