Mind Fix By Vera He

It’s been 15 years since Chris Nihmey’s first diagnosis as bipolar disorder, but the memories are still fresh when Nihmey started to talk about his experience with mental illness.

Nihmey, a former high school English teacher turned writer, has battled bipolar disorder for the last 15 years. Now Nihmey is fully recovered, but getting there wasn’t easy.

“If it wasn’t for the help from my family and friends, I would have never recovered,” Nihmey said. However, Nihmey said the help he received from the public mental health services only played a minor role throughout his recovery.

According to the report by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), one in five people in Canada will experience a mental health problem or illness in a given year.

While mental illness is just as normal as other physical diseases, services provided for mental illness patients do not seem to satisfy all. And Nihmey is only one of many mental illness patients who did not get sufficient help from the mental health services.

Experts who have worked in the area for years urge the government to fund more on mental health programs by illustrating the possible barriers that poor mental health systems could result in.

Mike Pietrus, director of the Opening Minds program at MHCC who has worked in the field for over 20 years said the lack of public attention and inadequate services on mental illness could result in many bad consequences and mislead people.

Pietrus introduces MHCC's Opening Minds program. (photo by Vera He)

According to Pietrus, Opening Minds is the largest systematic effort in Canadian history focused on reducing stigma related to mental illness.

While institutions use the official data as one in five Canadians would suffer from mental illness, Pietrus argued that the data would probably be closer to one in three according to their research. So the issue is actually more serious than people imagine, Pietrus said. “That’s why it is such a common problem, and it is so important to deal with it.”

One of the dangers that insufficient mental health services could result in is stigmatization, Pietrus said.

Cecelia Cao, a second year university student, who doesn’t want her legal name identified in the article, was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, general anxiety disorder and major depression disorder.

Cao said she was deeply affected by the negative stereotypes associated with mental illness and hopes mental health services could make more improvements.

“I don’t like to share my stories with others because most people don’t understand me, many of them will even think people like me are monsters,” Cao said.

Cao said according to her doctor, more than 60 per cent of people who are suffering from mental illness don’t want to get help from anyone, only because they think it’s a shame.

The reason that this kind of phenomenon exists is because the lack of public attention on mental health Cao said.

“People are not educated enough. Mental illness is just like any other kinds of physical illness, it’s like having a cold,” she said.

Samuel Breau, 29, staff at MHCC, who is now a mental health advocate, was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder when he was in university.

Although Breau is getting much better now, he said he is still in the process of recovery. And throughout his healing process the hardest thing Breau said he faced was self-stigma, which affected him for a long time, in a negative way.

“I wasn’t taught enough in school about mental health. So I mislead myself by using the wrong impressions I had toward mental illness,” Breau said.

When Nihmey was forced to the hospital in 2001 and got his first diagnosis as bipolar disorder, he refused to believe the doctor and never took his pills.

Nihmey stayed in his parents’ basement for more than two months, lying down with a blanket over his head. Never answered the phone, and had no interaction with people.

“I didn’t aware of the importance of getting help from other people, I just wanted to hide in the dark by myself, and then everything got worse,” Nihmey said.

After Nihmey received his second diagnosis three months later, he said he began to listen to his doctor and started taking proper medication.

Although Nihmey said help he received from mental health services are insufficient, he admitted their importance for him throughout his recovery. Nihmey said he didn’t know their significance for people before having the illness himself.

According to Pietrus, the first step mental illness patients should do is to seek help. “Their lives change dramatically as soon as they step forward,” he said, “the thing people have to understand is in the vast majority of cases people can recovery, you can get better, so there is hope where people often don’t feel.”

Based on Breau and Cao’s case Pietrus proved his point that when people stigmatized themselves, it prevents them from seeking help, which is the most important step for their recovery.

“The longer an illness is left untreated, the worse it gets,” Pietrus said. He used the analogy of a broken ankle, “as soon as you hurt your ankle you would go to the doctors, but imagine it took you years to get your ankle fixed.”

Cao said the words she gets most from people around her is “everything will be okay” and by that she said she could feel the ignorance of people towards mental illness.

The medications that Cao has to take everyday to deal with her mental illness. (photo by Vera He)
“I’m not going to get better by just a sleep, I’m not just occasionally feeling sad because everyone has bad days. I seriously wanted to commit suicide and I cut myself on my arms due to my depression, most people don’t understand that, they just don’t,” she said.

Pietrus said there are two things the society hasn’t done enough about mental health; one is to encourage people to come forward to get help, the other is to be supportive of people, especially in the helping professions.

According to Pietrus, having the knowledge and understanding how to properly treat patients is hard, “if doctors didn’t receive enough training, they will lack confidence and therefore they wouldn’t want to deal with, or even discriminate or stigmatize patients.”

Breau said in his opinion education is the key to start on making changes. And he said the government should fund more on mental health programs.

Breau talks about how we could make improvements on mental health services. (photo by Vera He)

Same with Breau, Pieturs said the most effective change is going to be generational, and it is curial to bring mental health education into students’ textbooks.

“If I could have known better, maybe I will suffer less than I did throughout this 15 years, but who knows,” Nihmey said.

When speaking of the future, both Breau and Nihemy said they are optimistic about it because they already saw hope. But Cao, who is still suffering the most from mental illness among the three people, said she is not passionate about the future because she couldn’t see a way out of her current situation.

Cao laughing for the first time when going for a walk during the interview. (photo by Vera He)

“When people ask me what kind of help I want to receive from them, what I really want to tell them is just to leave me alone,” she said.

Pietrus said even if we take the data of one in five Canadians suffer from mental illness in a given year, it is one in two Canadians who would suffer from it throughout a lifetime.

“Once people really get the understanding of how common the issue [mental health] is, I think it needs to be required the resources and interests that we give to other illnesses,” Pieturs said.

After 20 years of working in the field of mental health, Pietrus said there are still a lot of things waiting for them to resolve. According to Pietrus, insufficient public mental health services would worsen the situation of discrimination and stigmatization towards patients; therefore discourage people to seek for proper help.

“I think we really don’t treat mental illness with enough respect,” he said. “Mental illness programs receive much less funding than other areas, it has to become more of a priority with politicians.”

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Vera He
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photo by Vera He

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