Awareness is best resource we have to tackle mental illness

Last week I was asked how the death of Robin Williams had touched me. It was a question that I connected with given my daughter is named Mindy based in part on a character from his 1970s sit-com Mork and Mindy and having personally been affected by family members who have also died by suicide. The tragedy of his death (by suicide) is a classic example of how strong and resilient a foe depression can be and proof that you can’t buy happiness as well.

Depression is often called a silent killer and although we are getting better at recognizing its debilitating effects, there remains much that needs to be understood and a lot of stigma that should be removed from the condition.  While most of us will suffer from normal periods of sadness in our lives, the difference between that and clinical depression is enormous.  Clinical depression can last years and the overwhelming sense is said to be a lack of feeling or more of a disinterested state than it is a sense of sadness.   Many individuals are able to hide this as they go about their business, often surprising people when the condition becomes known.  This seems to be the case with Robin Williams who so many considered the funniest man in the world and was no slouch when it came to work.

Suicide is a big consideration in the discussion about mental health and has come up a number of times while I have sat in parliament.  In 2012 I wrote about the newly announced National Strategy on Mental Illness which was somewhat bittersweet since the budget that was being rushed through parliament at the same time contained measures that reduced mental health services for our military and completely cut the First Nations Statistical Institute.  The disconnect between the government’s announcement and the budget was obvious.  While suicide was increasing among our forces, the need for mental health services was keeping pace.  First Nations mental health, cited as a top six priority in the strategy since the rate in that population is abnormally high, requires strong statistical evidence to analyse initiatives and help direct resources - which is why it made no sense to cut the Institute that was the best vehicle for doing that, especially since resources for this challenge for First Nations are already not sufficient. 

In addition to that, the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention has been calling for a national suicide prevention strategy for years.  They argue that suicide is a serious public health issue that requires a change in the way we think and speak about suicide.  To address the gap in federal action on this front, New Democrats introduced legislation to create a national suicide strategy in this parliament and the previous one as well.  

Robin Williams’ passing has consumed conversations as well as social and traditional media with the topics of mental health, depression, and suicide. This has taken place in the same summer as I attended an event in Wawa with Clara Hughes, the indomitable Canadian athlete who has used her status and teamed up with Bell to promote a cross-country conversation about mental health in Canada.  Her story shows that there are many paths leading away from mental illness which is an important reminder as we consider the loss of Robin Williams.