Hot! Compassion vital for victims of mental illness

Simcoe.com – Opinion – Reactions to Village Square Mall incident reveal Canadians’ bias toward issue
Aug 13, 2010.   Patrick Dion

PENETANGUISHENE – The Mirror’s recent account of an incident at Village Square Mall (“Teen accosted by mentally ill man at mall,” July 30) provides an opportunity to learn about compassion.

According to the report, the man lowered his pants in front of a teenage girl. Though regrettable for all involved, the incident also reveals the burden facing the more than 20 per cent of Canadians living with mental illness.

Without diminishing the seriousness of what transpired, I believe the news story, notwithstanding the fair-mindedness of its author, failed to report that the mall incident had not one, but two victims: a man whose purported mental illness precipitated an indecent act in a public place, and a young woman with every reason to be concerned after witnessing socially unacceptable conduct.

But the story angle not reported entails the deeply held biases facing Canadians living with mental illness. The outrage and actions of the woman in the hair salon, and certain statements made by the mall manager, typify the misplaced fear toward the mentally ill.

For centuries, men and women living with mental illness have been victimized by fear and prejudice. Recent decisions by the Government of Canada, however, have left many feeling hopeful that those living with mental illness will be brought out of the shadows forever.

In August 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper struck the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), a non-profit organization created to focus attention on mental-health issues and to work to improve the health and social outcomes of people living with mental illness.

In future, incidents such as the one at Village Square Mall would ideally be prevented, but, at a minimum, would be more sensitively managed.

Stigma is at the root of many challenges facing those living with mental illness. One of the key goals of the commission’s 10-year mandate is to reduce stigma, which causes those living with mental illness to be labelled, stereotyped and feared.

Seven million Canadians will experience mental illness this year alone. Sadly, many will continue to be relegated to the status of social pariah until the burden of stigma is lessened.

The MHCC’s Opening Minds initiative is the largest systematic effort to reduce the stigma of mental illness in Canadian history. The negative and prejudicial ways in which people living with mental illness are labelled is the single largest barrier to obtaining proper treatment. The commission aims to eliminate such intolerance.

The commission is also developing programs to train the general public to respond quickly and sensitively to mental-health emergencies. Earlier this year, the commission adopted Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Canada.

MHFA is the help provided to a person developing a mental-health problem or experiencing a mental-health crisis. The MHFA program is available to anyone, including human-resource managers, teachers, counsellors, police officers and, of course, mall managers.

It teaches citizens how to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental-health problems, provide initial help, and guide a person toward appropriate professional help. Such responsiveness is vital to a caring, civil society.

While I acknowledge the reaction of the mall manager was considerate, I also believe MHFA training would have given him deeper insights regarding how to further assist.

The generally negative reactions from the people involved in the incident at the mall were concerning. A combination of misinformation and lack of information ensures that many Canadians do not understand mental illness or the people who live with it.

But, as Canadians become more compassionate and enlightened regarding those living with mental illness, I envision a future with far less stigma, and a general public that responds more sensitively to people experiencing a mental-health episode.

Compassionate care must be the standard for all Canadians, not least those living with mental illness.

Patrick Dion is a former resident of Penetanguishene and current director of the board of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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