As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Matthew Dickson is an advocate for mental health in developing countries. Some countries have only one psychiatrist per million people. Tragically,
most people don’t even know about this. With his website,
www.mindaid.ca, he is trying to make this a mainstream conversation to help the over 270 million people in developing countries with no mental health care. He has bicycled across Canada and tries to get other people in
shape with another website, www.easierfitness.net.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about
what brought you to this specific career path?
I have suffered from mental health problems myself, so I know all about
how hard it can be to go through mental illness. For me, it was like living in
a war zone. And that was while living in Canada, one of the best places in
the world to go through mental health problems. The whole time I went
through it, my heart went out to people in war-torn or poor countries who
had not only mental illness to go through, but all the other associated
problems from poverty or war as well. To me, it is unthinkable what some
people have to go through in this world.
In the winter of 2016–17, I stumbled across a TED talk by Vikram Patel that talked about how millions of people in developing countries have no mental health care. It totally took me by surprise. Some countries have only one psychiatrist per million people. No medications. No counselling. What’s worse is that some people with mental illness are kept in chains. The World Health Organization launched a chain-free initiative in 2006. I had no idea it was so bad in so many countries.
I had been thinking of giving back and helping others suffering from mental
health problems throughout my recovery. I thought I would try to help
people here in Canada or other places closer to home. But when I saw that video and started researching the topic, I thought if I should help anyone,
shouldn’t it be people who need it the most? So I did some more digging
and got a website made in early 2018 to advocate for the cause and have
been trying to tell people ever since how bad it is in some countries.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans
have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental
illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
I think fear of the unknown is why there is still a stigma around mental
illness. The brain is an incredibly complicated organ that we don’t fully
understand. Also, peoples thoughts and emotions aren’t always easy to
recognize. People in general can be hard to understand at the best of times,
mental illness aside. But we’ve come a long way in talking about mental
health in the last few years. A local politician told me a year ago that of all
the people he talks to as a politician, the number one topic young people,
including university students, talk to him about is mental health. That gives
me great hope and makes me wonder, have we broken through to the next
generation? Have we done it?
What also gives me hope are other areas that have gone mainstream. Years ago the environment was always about number ten in the list of problems the world faced. But in the early 2000s, a report on the environment came out and for some reason everyone was talking about it. An environmentalist friend of mine said a week later that she had always talked about the environment her whole life, but she had never talked to so many people about the environment as she had that past week. It went from the top ten to the number one problem of the world literally overnight. Ever since then it has stayed at number one.
Other areas like bullying give me hope as well. Bullying didn’t used to be a topic of great discussion. But look at it now. Bullying is talked about so much more. We have pink shirt days. This was not happening when I was growing up. Things have changed so much.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the
focus on mental wellness?
I am trying to help de-stigmatize mental health in developing countries.
Most of the people I talk to about how bad it is in some countries with
mental health don’t even know about it. Some do, but most don’t. A lot of
mental health professionals I talk to in Canada don’t know about how bad it
is. I am trying to change this.
If I were trying to do this 20 or 30 years ago, I would have had a much harder time with it. We weren’t talking about mental health in our own countries then. It would have been hard to bring up this other conversation about mental health in developing countries. But seeing as how we are talking about mental health here in our own countries more and more all the time, it makes me wonder, are we finally ready to bring up this other conversation now? Can we handle it? I think we are. I think this is
something we can do.
So my main focus is on making this mainstream conversation. If everybody
knew about this, like they do clean water or any of the worlds other leading
causes, I believe millions of people would want to help literally overnight.
Businesses would donate millions of dollars. School kids would be putting
on fundraisers. And on and on.
Say this went viral and that happened, it would be amazing. After that, I
know we wouldn’t be able to solve the entire problem very quickly, just like
we haven’t solved clean water yet, but it would at least be up in the same
echelon of the other leading causes in the world. I see it in two phases. The
first phase is where all of a sudden everyone knows about it and they start
helping out in great numbers. The second phase is where things have
levelled out, where they are getting a lot more help, but they still have more
work to do, like clean water still does.
To get the word out about this, I have created a website, a YouTube channel
and a Facebook page. I have tried to make the content easier to share and used some buzzwords/buzz phrases. When I started researching the topic, I
found a lot of the information on the topic was scattered across the web. I
have tried to consolidate it in one spot and simplify it for people and make
it easier for them to grasp and share with others. It is a work in progress,
but I plan to do this for years to come.
I steer people towards BasicNeeds, the largest international nonprofit
helping people in developing countries with no mental health care. The
model they use, similar to the World Health Organization’s model, is to go
into a community and teach some of the people there how to give basic
mental health care to those who need it. The model is low-cost, proven
effective and scalable. Since the year 2000 BasicNeeds has given basic
mental health care to 800,000 people. But there are still over 270 million
people with no mental health care. There is so much more work to do. This
is why it needs to go viral. They could get so much more help. It wouldn’t be
solved overnight, but they could get so much more help.
Riot Games, the creator of the massively popular video game League of
Legends, donated US$1 million to BasicNeeds in 2017. The gamers voted
that charity out of three charities in total to get that money. That makes me
very happy for BasicNeeds to get that kind of attention. This is the kind of
thing that has to happen all the time, with everybody talking about it and
doing things to help on a large scale.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
I decided to launch this initiative because of the reasons I’ve already
mentioned, but I also thought that if I didn’t do anything about this and I
was 80 or 90 years old and I looked back on my life, would I be happy with
myself? Here I was with first-hand knowledge of what so many people were
suffering with, I had good public speaking abilities, I wasn’t afraid of the
web, and I didn’t do anything about it? I don’t think I’d be happy with
myself if I didn’t do anything.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the
government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
To better support people suffering from mental illness, I think individuals
can talk more about it. I heard a vegan advocate the other day say how
some people don’t know what they can do to help the vegan movement. He
said that a lot of people have 100 friends on social media and that that is
nothing to be scoffed at. He said start from there. Don’t discount what you
already have. I would also say educate yourself. There are so many books
and resources that teach you how to have better mental health and a lot of
them are free in your library or free on the web. There are also so many
books and resources on how to be an advocate, how to get your word out
there. You can have social media channels up for free in minutes. You can
have a website or blog up for free in minutes. You can have a YouTube
channel up for free in minutes. There are books on public speaking, how to
make videos. Don’t be afraid to use your voice.
Also, individuals can learn to listen better to others going through mental
health issues. When you’re sick with it, it can be so beneficial to simply talk
to someone about what you’re going through. It makes you feel heard, seen
and valued. But so many people don’t know how to listen very well. And yet
again, there are so many resources out there on how to listen better or how
to have more empathy. So many people don’t feel heard.
Society can support people suffering from mental illness by engaging the
media more. Talking about mental health openly is very important. And
seeing others doing so in front of millions of people can be very powerful.
Some of the things governments can do are outlaid in the World Health
Organization’s Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan 2013–2020.
Countries can create policies and plans for mental health. Not all countries
have done this. They can create or update laws for mental health. They can
create strategies for promotion and prevention in mental health, such as
lowering the suicide rate of countries. The world had success in this area.
From 2013 to 2016 there was an 8% reduction in the global suicide rate
from 11.4 suicides per 100,000 people to 10.5 suicides per 100,000 people.
Also governments can strengthen information systems and research on
mental health. The World Health Organization created the Mental Health
Atlas, which takes a snapshot of the state of mental health in all countries.
Governments could also increase funding to mental health. Right now the
amount of funding from governments is very low in both developed
countries and developing countries.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and
mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
To take better care of my own mental well-being, I read a lot on how to get
me better. It is amazing how many books have been written by people
trying to help others. Elite soldiers and elite athletes have written volumes
about how to get better mentally. Business leaders are always looking for a
mental edge and have written profusely about it.
I have learned one of the easiest people skills methods. It is called Verbal
Judo and it is what police officers use to deal with people. So many of our
problems come from the people in our life. If we can get a better handle on
where people are coming from, it can make our lives less stressful. Verbal
Judo, hands-down, has made my life much easier. You can read about it in
George Thompson’s book Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion. I talk
about it on my fitness website too.
I watch my thoughts quite closely throughout the day. I know when you’re
mentally ill, it can be hard to have much control over your thoughts. But at
the same time, I think there are some thoughts you can have control
over — not all of them, but some kinds of thoughts. Knowing where certain
thinking can trip you up is always good to know.
I try to keep my emotions in check as much as I can. I think of it as a
thermostat and for me I picture it kind of in my chest. Instead of getting
high emotions and then low emotions, I try to keep them as level as I can
throughout the day.
I try to exercise. Exercise is such a good way to stay and feel healthy. I have created a workout I call the Convenient Workout. It is such an easy way to
get some exercise in and it really astounds me, honestly. By simply doing
some push-ups, pull-ups, squats and sit-ups, you can work all your major
muscles instead of doing eight to ten exercises at the gym with weights. And
I only do one exercise at a time. I don’t do all four exercises back to back,
like most people do. That way, I don’t work up a sweat and don’t have to
change into gym clothes. So many people struggle to exercise and I have
gained some muscle without even changing into gym clothes. It takes up so
little of my day, seconds really, yet I’ve gotten results. Being mentally ill,
this was amazing for me, as I lacked a lot of energy. I hope more people
could do this workout, mentally ill or not.
I try to watch my diet as well. This is a work in progress, but I have made
some headway. Since 2010 I have cut a lot of junk food out of my diet.
There are more books in recent years on how to cut back on sugar,
something I’m very happy about. There didn’t used to be as many books on
cutting out sugar. Sugar is becoming talked about more and more. They say
that there is a link between sugar and dementia now and that dementia is
essentially “type 3 diabetes.” The two main things I try to do are eat more
vegetables and eat less junk food. Also, a quote I quite like said that you
have to think of your diet as a brilliant strategy. We are bombarded with
unhealthy food all day long. You need a brilliant strategy to help defend
yourself from all those attacks.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
People who have inspired me to be a mental health champion include
Martin Seligman. His TED talk, “The New Era of Positive Psychology,”
really made a case for philanthropy and helping other people.
Vikram Patel’s Ted talk, “Mental Health for All”, was the first time I ever
heard about mental health in developing countries and how bad it is. It had
a huge impact on me. He is also one of the world’s biggest advocates for the
Scott Harrison, founder of charity:water, has been a huge inspiration for
me, too. His story really resonates with me, even though he deals with clean
water and not mental health. He is trying to alleviate poverty and has
focused on clean water, as it has so many overlaps into other issues of
poverty. You can read about Scott in his book Thirst.
Leila Janah, another person trying to alleviate poverty and author of Give
Work: Reversing Poverty One Job at a Time, has been a huge inspiration
to me. Her story really resonates with me, like Scott’s. I know there are
thousands of people out there trying to help others, but for some reason,
she and Scott really pull me into their stories.
And Jane Goodall has also been a source of inspiration to me. She is in her
mid-80s now and she travels 300 days a year, still going strong. I hope that
I can be like her someday, only for mental health, whereas she advocates for
chimpanzees and the environment.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!