From the Editor
Drug breakthroughs, better imaging, less invasive procedures. There are many amazing health-care stories from the past three decades but perhaps the most important one is decidedly low tech: the decline of stigma about mental illness, allowing millions of Canadians to discuss their problems and seek care.
That’s not to suggest that stigma doesn’t exist, of course. In November, we considered the Dabby et al. paper from The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, which showed bias even on the part of psychiatrists and psychiatric residents. Though the problem continues, it’s difficult not to believe that we have turned a significant corner: late last month, for instance, Bell Canada Let’s Talk campaign managed to raise more than $6 million in a single day.
In terms of reducing stigma, it helps immeasurably when people come forward and discuss their mental health illness. I remember talking to a patient who had struggled with her diagnosis. Inspired by Olympian Clara Hughes, she posted on Facebook that she has Bipolar. In my office, she wept when describing the outpouring of support – from friends and families, yes, but also from strangers.
Stigma still exists; it takes great courage to come forward – but it’s incredibly important that people do.
This week’s Reading is one person’s story of mental illness and recovery, and his choice to tell his story.
He also happens to be the President and CEO of my hospital. And I’ve never been prouder to work at The Scarborough Hospital.
Really Connecting with the CEO
“Out of the Darkness”
Robert Biron, Connect with the CEO, 27 January 2016
January 27, 2016 marked the sixth annual Bell Let’s Talk Day, a campaign to bring awareness to mental illness and drive action in mental health care, research, and workplace leadership across Canada. Ending the stigma around mental illness is one of the goals of Bell Let’s Talk Day and as the campaign notes on their website, ‘talking is the best way to start breaking down the barriers associated with mental illness.’
Like cancer, mental illness touches us all in some way directly or through a family member, friend, or colleague. Yet mental illness carries with it shame, fear, and myths. Stories of lived experiences are the best way to help eradicate this stigma and create space for understanding and support.
Today, I share with you my personal story of living with mental illness. While I have shared it with family and a few colleagues over the years, I have generally been ‘quiet’ about the matter out of fear of the stigma surrounding such an illness. Will I be viewed as weak, unstable, or incapable of fulfilling my duties? I have also felt that my story – despite at times being enormously challenging and dark – perhaps pales in comparison to some of the illnesses that others have suffered.
So begins Robert Biron’s blog.
Biron traces his mental health problems to a car accident when he was seven. On a car trip, his family was “hit head-on by a transport trailer.”
“The loss of his mother from cancer at 15” seems to have been a trigger. He notes various anxiety disorders:
Post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia (fear of crowded spaces), acrophobia (fear of heights), and claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces). For me, these are only labels – they serve as a reference point for others who were trying to help me. I am fortunate that I have been able to piece together the life events that contributed to these mental illnesses – the cause and effect.
Biron talks about treatment and recovery.
The ‘ultimate’ experience, as I once described it, which would expose me to my deepest fears – both heights and closed spaces – was being able to board an airplane and fly to a destination. Confinement at its best. But it also meant freedom. I did so for the first time in my early 40s. It was a white-knuckle experience, but overall, a positive life event. It gave me hope and courage.
Biron’s personal disclosure isn’t just moving, it’s also tremendously courageous. A provincial expert panel has just called for the merger of The Scarborough Hospital with the hospital to the east. Biron, in other words, is a hospital executive who may be applying for a job in a new super-hospital in the next few months. The temptation to say nothing must have been great.
Why come forward now?
I hope that coming forward will help others understand what mental illness is and is not. For those who fear, blame, or shame individuals with mental illness, I wish to help educate and engage. I also wish to convey, by example, the simple fact that mental illness can touch anyone and at any time in his/her life.
Reading of the Week. Every week I pick a reading — often articles or papers — from the world of Psychiatry.