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Awakening to mental health

In my youth, mental health or illness was unknown to me and most of my crowd, including my parents and their contemporaries.

In my youth, mental health or illness was unknown to me and most of my crowd, including my parents and their contemporaries. Adults sometimes mentioned “dotty” relatives, and we read about or saw in movies the madness that can affect someone. We knew about psychiatrists but as a relatively rare medical professional. We never heard of anyone going to a psychiatrist or a psychologist, whatever that was. We knew about “mental hospitals” but only as distant institutions. As we got older, we heard rumours about someone who may be in one, but never thought much about it. Reference to anything mental was mostly jocular, a shot taken at somebody in perverse fun. Physical health and education were important; mental health and education were not.

Now I know people who suffer from some sort of mental illness – anxiety or depression, mostly. I read of military personnel who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, mostly inflicted during or after a tour of duty (I guess we knew it as “shell shock” back then but, again, didn’t take it seriously). I don’t know when it dawned on me that mental illness was real, common and treatable. I know it now as a psychological or medical affliction like any other, and certainly as potentially serious as any other. I also know it as something to acknowledge openly, without constraint or prejudice. There was obviously a shame attached to it in past – hence, our not knowing or hearing anything about it. I’m not much wiser about the cause of mental illness any more than I am about the cause of any other illness, but it’s pressed on me to be wiser about all health.

The Canadian Mental Health Association says 53 per cent of Canadians consider anxiety and depression to be ‘epidemic’ in Canada; 59 per cent of 18-to 34-year-olds consider it so, with 56 per cent saying addiction is a serious problem (50 per cent of Canadians consider cancer rampant, heart disease and stroke 34 per cent, diabetes 31 per cent and HIV/AIDS 13 per cent). In St. Albert, mental illness is the top health issue for our youth, according to the city’s community and social development department, which also says that information and mental health referral services increased 33 per cent last year. These are our neighbours, our children.

May 6 to 12 is Mental Health Week in Canada. On May 14, the St. Albert Community Foundation is hosting former NHL goalie and current SportsNet TV analyst, Corey Hirsch, to a speaker event at the Arden Theatre. He has an important story to tell about mental health. He’s another professional athlete who publicly discusses his remarkable life, one who hid a mental illness that significantly affected him (his presentation is suitably entitled “Lose the Mask”). I doubt many games he played were as tough or important as his crusade now. We must listen to people like Corey; youth, parents and teachers particularly should attend his talk. I’m sure he will urge us to acknowledge and face our fears, our demons, honestly and openly, with the love and support of family, friends and community.

Roger Jackson is a former deputy minister and a St. Albert resident.