Ask anyone. Most people have a deeply personal and moving story about mental illness. This is immediate, and poignant, when speaking with Janice Gerard.
Hers is a tragic story about loss through suicide. In the case of mental illness, she has discovered that, sadly, love cannot conquer all. First met Andrew there was an almost alchemical draw that made their bond permanent. “I was completely naive regarding the nature of metal illness, just swept up in the love of this gorgeous man,” Janice recalls. Andrew, however, struggled with bipolar disorder for most of his life. The qualities that made him so charismatic and exciting became, at times, frightening and confusing to those who knew him. Times of creativity and extraordinary productivity were offset by the contrast of despair and bleakness. “Reflecting back, I now recall the fairly frequent emotional sessions in the wee hours of the night,” Janice remembers. “I would always talk it out and reassure him that everything would work out fine. I his caregiver.
There were many years of cycling through the phases that are so typical width bipolar, and Janice always trusted that her husband would pull through the dark times. But in the last months of his life, Andrew’s illness became voracious and uncontrollable. “He was unreachable, angry and critical. He was like a completely different Andrew,” Janice explains. Most frightening, however, were Andrew’s claims: “I’m done, Janice. I’m done.” Terrified by his feelings of hopelessness, the couple sought help together, attempting to admit Andrew to three different hospitals or inpatient programs in. Declined each time, Andrew was deemed to pose no risk of harm to himself. He did not get the treatment he desperately needed. Sadly, the day after that third attempt to get help, Andrew took his life.
Janice is now left with a deep sense of loss, haunted by far too many questions. “How can it possibly be that two capable and high functioning people had to struggle so hard to get appropriate help?” Andrew, an accomplished musician and well-respected developer in Vancouver, was not the picture of mental illness we all typically imagine. Janice wonders, “What must it be like for others trying to navigate through a system that tries its best, but clearly comes up short?” The answers don’t come easily. And when asked what gives her the strength to carry on after such a tragic loss, Janice holds back tears, sharing another moment of vulnerability. “I’m a survivor,” she explains. “I’ve lost over and over, and it’s through my music that I have learned that I can come home to my centre.” Janice is a classically trained concert pianist; her return to music after Andrew’s death was a step forward for her. The many years of being Andrew’s strength complimented her own.
Andrew is only one of many who have been tormented by the clutches of mental illness. The latest projection tells us that 20 per cent of canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Mental illness is as common as cancer. It can affect anyone, in any sphere of life, working or not working, at any age. Yet the stigma of mental illness keeps the problem largely in the shadows and prevents us from talking about it openly with our families, in our communities and at our workplaces—as was certainly the case for Janice and Andrew. The perception of mental illness in Vancouver has been conflated with social issues like homelessness, poverty and crime,but this only further deludes us from an undeniable fact: we will each, at some time, have a direct experience with mental illness, either in ourselves or in someone close to us. Janice wisely points out, “Hope will only come when mental illness is taken seriously.”
Michael Kirby, a former Canadian senator, would certainly stand by Janice’s insight. His work, and that of the Kirby Commission, has highlighted the need for mental illnesses to be given the same serious attention as physical illnesses, and emphasizes that people living with a mental illness ought to be given the same level of respect and consideration. These intentions are what fuel the work of organizations like the B.C. Mental Health Foundation(BCMHF), a recently-launched provincial foundation that focuses on making resources available for everyone dealing with mental health issues and addiction. They acknowledge that mental illness is virtually disregarded when it comes to funding and social awareness, and that it accounts for a staggering financial burden to our health care system, on our schools and on businesses large and small, throughout the province. Mental illnesses in the workplace cost our country an estimated $51-billion a year—add that to the$7.9-billion our health care system already incurs. B.C.’s public health care costs disproportionately account for roughly $1-billion of that $7.9-billion. Not to mention the financial burdens borne by individuals like Janice, which further compound the emotional repercussions of their losses.
How does B.C. really fare when it comes to facing the problem of mental illness? The answer is disquieting, alarming. Four children in every classroom of 30 will suffer from a mental illness, and of those, only one in six will receive treatment. And if that doesn’t startle you, consider that in that same classroom, two children will attempt suicide before the age of 18.Approximately 110,000 children in British Columbia are, at this moment,suffering from mental illnesses. And unfortunately, those that need treatment the most are often the least likely to get it.
There are many impediments to the way our health care system appraises mental illness. Our health care dollars mainly support a medication-only treatment approach. Many countries have acknowledged the importance of other well-supported treatments, like cognitive behavioral therapy for depression and anxiety, but these treatments can be very hard to access in B.C. Although people like Janice and Andrew may have had the wherewithal to afford the treatments that could have saved his life, it was accessing a trained professional that proved to be the bigger challenge, as is the case for many British Columbians.
Janice shakes her head with incredulity, saying, “Something needs to be done.” That is why the BCMHF and others like it acknowledge that we, as individuals, need to be agents of change, doing what we can to improve our own understanding of mental illness, eliminate stigma and the discrimination that it can stir. Lives will only be saved once a system wide improvement takes place. BCMHF faces the daunting mission of unraveling the mysteries of mental illness by rallying researchers, support systems and treatments to help eliminate the problem altogether.Undaunted, they hope to build the provincial resources available to people like Janice, to help ensure tragedies like hers no longer exist, and to ensure that her words, “I’ve felt so hopeless, like there’s nowhere to turn,”are not uttered again. Through the efforts of people like Janice, and the many others inspired to eliminate the stigma of mental illness, the face of mental health in B.C. may finally change. For the better.
–by Michele Kambolis
Published in Monecristo Magazine Spring 2010 edition.