Cancer gets our sympathy, mental illness not so much

By Pat Watson Wednesday October 29 2014 in Opinion
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Do you know this guy? He lies. He is unreliable. He is very negative about a lot of things in his life and about other people. He could be described as a “loner”. On top of that he is using substances excessively, perhaps alcohol, perhaps cocaine, or maybe prescription drugs. He is on the verge of losing his job. Maybe he doesn’t have a job. Or, he is the guy you see looking like his mind is very far away, he never makes eye contact, as if he is not quite in the same time frame as the rest of the crowd.


Perhaps he’s carrying a briefcase, but you can tell from the condition of his clothing that he is definitely not on his way to some desk job. He’s the guy who looks right through you as if you are not there.


Or, he is the guy who gets into a car and runs down a person in military uniform. Or he’s the guy who goes to an important national symbol like the War Memorial in Ottawa and shoots someone dressed in a military uniform. Or, he is a person who has risen to a high position in politics. Maybe someone like the outgoing mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, a self-confessed addict.


What does mental illness mean to those who have never experienced it? To those who have a family member who lives with mental illness there would likely be empathy and concern. To those who only encounter these individuals as part of the daily street scene they are a source of curiosity, perhaps, but often they are met with some disgust.


A disordered mind is not an easy matter for those suffering from it, nor for those who feel the frustration of having such individuals in their midst.


When the Toronto Star began chronicling the misadventures of Ford, the tone was of annoyance that this character was leading our fair city. His antics became legion, and he was considered unfit. The matter of his mental illness was not so much examined as his behaviour was disparaged.


Mental illness – and substance addiction is very much along the spectrum of mental illness – is not easily tolerated by those who have no real grasp of what it is.


When the news became public that Ford had been diagnosed with malignant cancer, there was a much different response. The news of his physical illness was treated with sympathy and many good wishes for his health and recovery after treatment with chemotherapy and so on.


Yet, when Ford when off to a drug rehabilitation facility at the start of the summer, that kind of sympathy was not as evident. Instead, there was a sense of relief that he was getting help – at long last.


The notion is that in the case of mental illness, the sufferer has defaulted on the reasonable choice of whether to get help or to continue to live with his untreated condition. But the nature of many mental health conditions is that the person with the diseased mind would already have an unrealistic understanding of his condition.


Moreover, given the kind of stigma with which society addresses mental illness, many people who are mentally ill share the same perspective. Consequently, denial is a powerful factor in these conditions.


Any chronic, progressive illness only becomes worse if it is hidden and not treated. Mental illness is no different in that sense from other forms of illness. Therefore, when we as a society and a culture continue to avert out eyes and remain prejudiced regarding this area of ill health we do ourselves a disservice because it could happen to any of us. Some people may be old enough to remember when the word “cancer” was only whispered in reference to anyone who had it. But the times have changed. Can we do the same for mental illness?


A note on voter turnout…         


It looks like the people who decided to vote early, before Election Day Monday, had the right idea. Not even threat of rain kept voters away from the polls. If there is one good thing that has come out of this fractious period in municipal politics it is that the general population has become more interested and more engaged.


Pat Watson is the author of the e-book, In Through A Coloured Lens. Twitter@patprose.

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