Monday, September 10, 2007

Suicide, mental illness and our neglect

All across B.C., parents sent their children off to school in the last few days, hoping things would go well, worrying about what might go wrong.
Worrying about the wrong things, mostly.
We drive our kids to school, because we fear bad people might hurt them. We support groups like MADD, figuring drunk drivers are a threat.
And of course we worry about drugs and our children.
But suicide, that's not much on our mind. For some reason, we think it's more likely that strangers will kill our children than that will choose to end their own lives.
We're wrong.
In B.C., your child is 13 times more likely to kill himself than be killed by someone else. He's more than three times as likely commit suicide as to die in an alcohol-related car crash.
And while about 250 people will die of illegal drug overdoses this year, about 400 will kill themselves.
More of those little kids starting kindergarten - or older kids starting university - will die of despair than addiction, car crashes or homicide.
But who talks with their children about mental illness and depression?
It's World Suicide Prevention Day today. That's good. But it's still easier to get people to buy a ribbon showing they disapprove of drunk driving than it is to make suicide an issue.
We just don't like to think about suicide, or mental illness; it's still shameful. Since it's shameful, it's easy to decide the people who are ill don't really deserve our help.
And when the choice is whether to replace some 40-year-old's hip or help someone who suffers from schizophrenia, mental illness usually loses. On some level, a lot of us just think those people should try harder.
Maybe that's changing. The federal government has just created the Canadian Mental Health Commission. "It costs our economy billions and our society untold grief," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in announcing the commission.
I'm not so sure. The provincial Liberals rightly attacked the former NDP government for a mental-health plan that was a sham, lots of words but no funding.
But today, there is no funding commitment for mental-health services. The hard-pressed health authorities decide on spending, not the province. And, often, crowded ERs or surgical backlogs are bigger priorities than help for people struggling with depression.
The Health Ministry's performance plan has only one measurement dealing with mental illness - the percentage of people hospitalized who get some help in the month after they're released. It's a pretty sketchy way to measure performance in a fundamental health area.
I'm sure Health Minister George Abbott's staff will bang out a letter for him to sign about spending great new initiatives once this column runs.
But looking around Victoria, it sure doesn't seem like the mentally ill are getting more help today than they were a few years ago. There are a lot more of them on the streets.
It's not just a government problem. We're mostly alarmed by mental illness. The people are often strange. We wonder why they don't just buck up. (Although we don't think cancer patients should try a little harder to cure themselves.)
Here in Victoria, a drop-in centre that's a lifeline for people with mental illness - a place where they're accepted, have friends, a life - is closing. If it was a seniors' centre, or provided the same break for disabled kids, the media and public would be all over the issue. Not for the mentally ill.
Or look at suicides. Every 10 days in Victoria someone will kill himself. But you won't read about it, or see a report on TV. There are reasons for the media hesitancy; some studies suggest a risk of increased suicides if they are reported.
But I'd argue the media just reflect our reluctance to deal with what is, generally, just another effect of mental illness.
And with some authority. My brother killed himself. And I am sure my response, my family's response, was much different than if cancer or a car crash had killed him.
Really, it starts with us. It starts with recognizing that mental illness is fundamentally just another medical condition. And that people suffering from it deserve care and support just as much as any other people battling illness.


Erik Abbink said...

I read your post in the Times Colonist today. Excellent post and observations!

Anonymous said...

Another shortcoming of our system is that MSP won't pay for counselling.

I suffer from long term depression. After I attempted suicide, I was sent to an emergency mental health clinic where I was given counselling, but only for a limited time. After several months I was booted out on my own and I can't get any more help unless I attempt suicide again.

I see a psychiatrist, but he doesn't do counselling, he only writes prescriptions for anti-depressants that have no effect on me. If I want to get counselling, I have to pay for it out of my own pocket at about $120 per hour.

This is especially galling since I am on disability due to the depression and after paying my rent and utilities I only have just over $200 for food and everything else. How am I supposed to get the help I need?