Mental Illness Awareness Week | Mark Henick

Mark Henick is one of Canada’s most acclaimed mental health advocates. Informed by his direct experience with the mental health care system as a teen, Mark has authored commentaries on issues relating to mental health for major media outlets across Canada and the U.S. His talk at TEDx Talk ‘Why we Choose Suicide‘ has captured over 600,000 views, making it the most viewed Talk of the 2013 Toronto conference. Mark was recently names one of the spokespeople for the Canadian Alliance of Mental Illness and Mental Health’s (CAMIMH) Mental Illness Awareness Week. Occurring in November, the event is an annual national public education campaign designed to help open the eyes of Canadians to the reality of mental illness. Mark was featured at our Engage Speaker Talks in Toronto last month as a part of our Mental Health Panel. Here are some highlights from his talk: NSB-Divider Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW) is an annual national public education campaign. It was established in 1992 by the Canadian Psychiatric Association and is now coordinated by the CAMIMH in cooperation with all its member organizations and many other supporters across Canada. In recognition of MIAW, we asked Mark to share his thoughts on some important areas of Mental Health:

Why is MIAW so important?

National campaigns like Mental Illness Awareness Week help to highlight what is arguably the most important, yet often most often forgotten fact about people who happened to have experienced a mental illness: there is no “us versus them.” That is, of course, because we are them. Like many other illnesses, people from a diverse range of backgrounds can experience any number of mental health problems. These can vary widely in both severity and duration, as well as impact that it has on an individual’s life. We know a great deal more today about how this happens and the biology of mental illness – especially the neurology and genetics – than we ever have before. We also have many years worth of scientific evidence on the environmental and social factors at play, as well as on how people best recover in them. One important example is that we now know that these domains are not mutually exclusive: our brain changes our mind, and our mind changes our brain The depth of knowledge that we have about mental illness is still not yet public knowledge. Broad-based campaigns which feature living examples of that knowledge in action help to communicate it.

How do we best overcome the stigma surrounding mental health discussion, as individuals and as a community?

Stigma reduction starts, as any action does, as a thought. We need to be open to the fact that this is a rapidly developing field and that we are learning more every day. Many of the old ways of doing things, of treating people, of talking about mental health (and about the people who encounter problems with it), are no longer current. It is the task of a responsible citizen to try and keep up with this progress and, most importantly, be willing to change their mind. That said, research has shown that simply changing attitudes does not necessarily change behaviors. Most people know that smoking is harmful, but people still smoke. That’s where it becomes important to target behaviours. You are no longer allowed to smoke in many public spaces because it has the potential to harm others. Likewise, stigmatizing behaviours harm the people they are directed at, and therefore cannot be allowed to occur. In fact, many report that the stigma can feel worse than the symptoms. One example of where these behavioural changes can happen involves the training of our law enforcement and health professionals. As more individuals in these groups become increasingly mindful of how to perform their very necessary duties without stigmatizing people who may (or may not) have a mental illness, people they are there to help, everyone will benefit.

Is social media the best knowledge sharing and exchange system around mental health in Canada and globally?

Social media can have a mixed effect when it comes to raising awareness for mental health, but I think that it is ultimately a very positive vehicle for changing minds. On the one hand, the creation of a positive message that then gets widely shared can help to get people thinking and maybe even talking about mental health. However, as we’ve said, thinking and talking is necessary, but not necessarily sufficient. We have to act. The added factor of anonymity can be a problem, in that it seemingly gives people licence to say hurtful things that they would otherwise not say to someone in person. That could, and has had very real and tragic consequences for people on the receiving end. The positive side to this anonymity is that it can also allow people to feel that they can express how they are feeling more freely. Some online counselling services make excellent use of this advantage. Posting on social media can also invite people from around the world to connect with a person who may not have any other connections in their life, and has even been used to notice warning signs of a possible mental health problem and even for suicide. As social media becomes more personal, and as it integrates itself more into our day-to-day lives, I think that you will see it start to take on more of the humanity that it sometimes lacks today.

How can we create mentally healthy workplaces?

An open workplace is a healthy one. Many people report that they fear telling their boss about a mental health problem that they’ve been experiencing because they are fearful that it will negatively impact their career. There are disturbingly high statistics around such beliefs as that a person with a mental illness is unreliable, untrustworthy, ineffective, and lacking ambition. These statistics are disturbing because they are false. At least, they are no more true for someone who happens to experience a mental health problem than they are for someone who doesn’t. It is not ok to say these things about virtually any other classification, such as race, religion, or gender. Even, for that matter, for any physical illness or disability. Bill may or may not make his deadline, but that only has any relevance at all to his diabetes, his cane, his Christianity, or his depression if it happens to for him. Once we build a better understanding in workplaces of what mental health and mental illnesses are (and what they are not), then we can move toward accommodations in a more informed and compassionate manner. It is not just beneficial to the employee to have their mental health safeguarded at work. In fact, by increasing productivity as well as decreasing sick time and disability leave in their workforce, employers actually improve their bottom line. Workplace mental health is more than a compassionate cause – it’s good business.

What has your processes of recovery taught you?

The most important lesson that I’ve learned from recovery is that we, all of us, have to continually be recovering. That is, this isn’t a process reserved only to those who contract a mental illness. This is the human quest of improvement and self understanding. When we see and feel what it’s like to be so deprived of joy, and love, and forgiveness, and hope that we even consider death – that’s what makes happiness all the more fulfilling when we get there. As the poet and mystic Rumi once wrote, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” Indeed it is, and it does.   NSB-Divider Check back all week on the NSBlog for more speakers sharing their thoughts on Mental Illness Awareness Week. Previous speakers featured include: Ann Dowsett Johnston, Expert on Public Policy & Addiction Frank Warren, Founder of PostSecret Rona Maynard,  Mental Health Advocate & Former Editor-in-Chief at Chatelaine.  

For more info on Mark, check out his NSB profile.