Mental illness out of the closet

By Pat Watson Wednesday February 05 2014 in Opinion
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There is an awful lot less sunshine and daylight at this time of year. That lack of light negatively affects some people to a significant degree. They are said to be experiencing seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Maybe somebody’s idea of dry humour, since sad is how people with the symptoms actually can feel.


Beyond sadness brought on by seasonal changes, there are deeper experiences of despair. Just last month, Christopher Peloso, the spouse of former politician George Smitherman took his own life. Peloso had been living with depression for some time and found relief in the final solution.


His suicide made the news because of his high-profile mate but his wasn’t the only one.


There has been a string of suicides among Canadian army veterans and native people on far north reserves. And, some of the delays in the subway system would likely have been suicide related.


For those who have a great appreciation of life, it can be hard to understand how someone would be so tormented being in this world that leaving it would seem better than staying one more day.


But, here’s a note of caution: If you spend a lot of time listening to the news and you are already susceptible to a mood disorder – and that would be one out of every 10 of us here in Canada – then consider cutting down on news consumption. The way news reporting is framed will fill one’s mind with nothing but what is wrong with the world, how terrible we human beings are to each other, and every imaginable fear-based bit of information that can be found.


Mental health – the interest in it at least – is on the rise. When I began promoting my book, and people would ask what it is about, as I explained the contents, listing off a series of themes, education, social justice, some humour, mental health and so on, invariably, persons asking would pause at the mention of mental health. That would happen whether in a radio interview as I had on the Diasporic Music program on Uhuru Radio or in the barbershops where I left flyers and had brief chats with patrons or in the salon where I got a haircut. There is always the pause and a sound of encouragement that, yes, this is an important matter that needs our attention.


Just about everyone is willing to get an annual physical check-up and the healthcare system is organized for that, but there isn’t a parallel mental health system in place. That lack is a contributor to our mental health concerns since, like other debilitating illnesses like cancer or diabetes, untreated mental illness only grows progressively worse over time. And, as is the case with those who attempt suicide, can lead to death.


Mental health as it overlays an environment of discrimination, prejudice or hatred aimed at Black people is its own particular condition. We talk about the pain of it amongst ourselves. We lash out emotionally as well as intellectualize our pain in a continuous flow of communication that takes its many forms – from social media, to the barbershop, to the church, to books and whatever way there is.


The good news is that we are beginning to have that discussion. The good news is that we are now accepting that experiencing mental illness is not a character defect. It is not about not having backbone or strong moral fiber. Whatever form it presents relates to our environmental conditions and affected biochemistry.


A study done through Michigan State University last year found major depression is higher among older Caribbean immigrants than African-Americans as well as the general population and that the rate was even higher for older Caribbean men in this group. The study used 50 years as the starting point for the definition of “older”.


We take a certain pride in being strong, but being strong also means taking off the mask of pride and admitting when there is a mental health concern.

A note on Groundhog Day…


This Groundhog Day, promoters went the extra step of advising the public that it’s all in fun. So this year, with the various star rodents disagreeing on an early spring or six more weeks of winter, there should be no death threats arising against the beleaguered creatures.

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

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