Thousands of people march through the streets of Montreal in support of mental health issues on Sunday October 4, 2015.
Allen McInnis / Montreal Gazette
Bell Let’s Talk Day has, once again, come and gone. People across the country were focused on texting and talking about mental health via various social media platforms. Articles on the subject abounded in Canadian newspapers, many focusing on the importance of talking about mental health. In and of itself, it is a great initiative. We need to talk about mental health, increase awareness and try to reduce stigmatization.And then what?What exactly happens to the people who do open up about their mental health issues?As a psychologist, I find myself thinking about the people directly concerned: those living with mental illness. What concretely is being done to help them through their struggles and to live fulfilling lives?Research indicates that the optimal treatment for mental illness includes medication (depending on the disorder and its severity) and therapy. However, here in Quebec, access to psychotherapy is limited. The waiting lists to see a psychologist in our health and social services system are long. In order to consult one in private practice, one must pay, which is not an option for many people. Thankfully, a variety of mental health organizations do exist, providing people with great services, from counselling to finding employment and places to live, but they are underfunded and little known to the public.Access to psychiatrists is also difficult. Let us not forget that they are the specialists in the field of pharmacological treatment. Although family doctors — for those who have one! — can prescribe psychiatric medication, it is not their area of expertise. In stark contrast to this, specific treatments for physical illnesses like cancer are accessible to all in our public system, although, admittedly, not everything is perfect in that domain either.Related Mental-health promotion and mental-illness prevention have not been a priority for our government. Research shows, however, that by investing in these fields (to develop peoples’ and communities’ strengths and reduce mental illness risk factors), we contribute to improving the population’s mental health. By doing so, we also save money and contribute to saving lives, for example, through suicide prevention.When it comes to the diagnosis of physical illnesses, we often have access to cutting-edge technology, thanks to research. This is far from being the case for mental illnesses, where we must rely on the person’s account of symptoms to make a diagnosis. As we know, diagnosing accurately leads to better treatment.Finally, of course, there is the issue of the stigma associated with mental illness, which is what Bell Let’s Talk Day and past government awareness campaigns are all about. Despite these initiatives, however, such stigmatization remains firmly entrenched in our society. One need only ask people living with mental illness, and they will provide many examples of stigmatization and discrimination, for example, encountered in trying to find work, adequate housing or insurance. This can have serious repercussions on help-seeking behaviour.For all these reasons, I urge the government to act now and invest concretely in:Mental-health research Improving access to psychological and psychiatric treatment for all Increasing local mental-health resources (including adequately financing community mental health organizations) Mental health promotion and mental-illness prevention programs Awareness campaigns on mental health and illness Talking about mental health and mental illness is essential, but it is not enough. There is a great deal of work left to be done, which can be accomplished with the government’s willingness and help. Mental-health recovery is an often long, non-linear, personal process. This can be very demanding on people living with mental illness because of the magnitude of the effort required of them. Let us give them the necessary tools to rebuild themselves and live fulfilling lives.Georgia Vrakas is a psychologist and psychoeducator, and professor in the Département de psychoéducation Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières.