Senior InsideOut Editor
What do you know about mental illnesses? Did you know that one out of every five Canadians is affected by mental illness at some point in their lives? Did you know that only one-third of the people affected by mental illness seek any professional help? Perhaps this knowledge is nothing new to you. Or perhaps it is.
For many, mental illness is a fact of life. However, only recently has it been acknowledged as being so. Where mental health disorders were once thought to be a result of demonic possession or some such other aliment, science has now proven otherwise.
But this doesn’t make the stigma any less real.
Students are at high risk for mental health disorders, particularly if there is a hereditary predisposition at play. The high-stress environment of university coupled with poor lifestyle choices such as irregular sleeping patterns and substance abuse can make a student particularly vulnerable to mental illness.
‘Max,’ whose real name has been withheld, is one such individual who can attest to students’ vulnerability to mental illness. A schizoaffective bipolar type, Max stated that frequent drinking and use of marijuana contributed to his mental illness.
After being diagnosed with bipolar type two, Max explained that he used marijuana as a mood stabilizer. However, marijuana contributed in part to his eventual diagnosis of schizophrenia: “it’s very important to know that 40 per cent of people using the marijuana today are going to receive some forms of psychosis … people don’t realize how strong marijuana has become as opposed to the hippie days 30 or 40 years ago.”
Excessive sleeping, up to 18 hours a day and thoughts of suicide preceded Max’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder: “all of a sudden life was so dark, the things I loved before I no longer had the energy to do and people seemed dead to me.”
Schizophrenia, on the other hand, caused Max to have “a lot of hallucinations and delusions of things that I perceived to be my reality and perceived to be real based on what I had learned and what I was told.”
After intense therapy and use of medication, however, Max now lives a gratifying life.
In fact, he appears no different from anyone else, indicating that mental health disorders need not impair someone from living well.
Max explained that though it “sucks” having a mental illness it’s something that, with a little bit of patience, can definitely get better.
There’s been a concerted effort to dispel the stigma of mental illnesses, particularly within our local community. Mood Menders Support Group, which provides support to those with depression and bipolar disorder, has been operating within the Hamilton community since 1985. Since then not only has Mood Menders provided a formidable support network to those with mental health disorders, as well as to their families, but it has also made strides toward educating and bringing awareness to mental illnesses.
Charles Cino, President of Mood Menders, says that “stigma instils fear in someone’s life … it’s based on unfounded facts. It hurts individuals with a mood disorder to the point where people sometimes believe that the way they’ve been stigmatized is the truth.”
Seeking to educate the uneducated, Cino explained that “as a society we have to give the brain the respect it deserves to be allowed to become sick. We accept the fact that other body parts can become ill … if other organs in the body can become sick then we have to recognize that the brain too can become sick.”
Cino further noted that mental illness is indeed receiving greater attention in the media as well amongst high profile people, and not a moment too soon.
“From a medical science perspective this is the last frontier. The 21st century is going to be the explosion of research and a much better understanding of [mental illnesses],” said Nirankar Prasad, Director of Mood Menders.
Yet Mood Menders is not alone in making a difference in the lives of those afflicted with mental health disorders as well as promoting education. The Student Wellness Centre (SWC) at McMaster University provides personal and psychological counselling, mental health support, medical services and wellness education.
Debra Earl, mental health nurse at SWC, said that “historically people with mental illness have not been very high functioning … so they were shut away and they weren’t able to be an active member of society … mental illness was a very negative thing.”
Amongst students, Earl noted that popular indicators of mental health disorders include isolation from the outside world, mood change such as extreme sadness or irritability, changes in sleeping patterns like excessive sleeping or lack of sleeping, and changes in nutritional habits such as binge eating or loss of appetite.
However, this is not to say that if you are experiencing these symptoms that you have a mental illness.
Cino explained that “two people can experience the same thing. Take death, for example. One person will experience sadness, but never come below that bar, while the other one will go into clinical depression. It’s the way their mind recognizes the problem.”
For students, making positive life style choices is key to ensuring mental wellbeing: “making good choices about getting good sleep, eating well, and building up a support network of friends and family to make sure people are looking out for you when you crash. Engaging in activities is another positive thing [students can do],” explained Earl.
The lives we live as students aren’t often conducive to good mental health. And while the choices we make for our physical health often get the attention, it’s our mental health that is often even more at risk.