I believe we will look back at this period in history as the moment when we changed our relationship with mental health. Everything changes and the tipping point we are about to cross will take mental health issues from an obscure disease we turn a blind eye towards to part of everyday life, impacting every single member of our society.
Last year, I joined the foundation board for CAMH, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and would like to share with you more about why I’ve been inspired to invest more of my time and energy towards what I believe firmly will the biggest issue facing us in the decades to come.
In the past 30-40 years, our advances as a society in research, science and medicine have reduced premature deaths, improved quality of life for those with physical illness and increased our general awareness and understanding about what is good (and not so good) for our bodies. The progress with diagnoses, prevention and cure of most physical health issues has been a remarkable display our human intelligence and passion to solve problems.
In the next 20 years, the biggest health issue that will face our population will not be physical, but mental. If you have children or plan to have kids, it will be the biggest health issue they will face in their lifetime. If you have baby boomer parents like I do, their mental health and physical health issues will be on par with one another.
We are all impacted by mental health issues, directly or indirectly. Be it a lived experience, a family member, friend or co-worker, someone you know is dealing with a mental health issue right now (whether they are even aware of it). This is the moment the responsibility of mental health shifts from researchers and clinicians to all members of society.
The Issue is Real
What do we mean by mental health? Some examples include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and substance abuse. Issues will vary from mild to severe. Unlike having a cavity, a bone fracture or even cancerous cells, it is not as easy to diagnose mental health issues yet. Though based on the available definitions and data, we begin to get a picture.
In any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians experiences a mental health or addiction problem. Think about 5 people you care about. One of them is likely dealing with a mental health issue today.
Nearly 4,000 Canadians die by suicide each year – an average of almost 11 suicides a day. After accidents, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 34. Based on this trend, suicide may easily become the leading cause of death for young people soon.
According to The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2015 alone, 9.8 million adults 18 or older thought seriously about trying to kill themselves in the past 12 months, including 2.7 million who made suicide plans and 1.4 million who made a nonfatal suicide attempt. These numbers represent 4.0 percent of adults in 2015 who had serious thoughts of suicide, 1.1 percent who made suicide plans, and 0.6 percent who attempted suicide in the past year.
The stigma is still getting in the way. 39% of Ontario workers indicate that they would not tell their managers if they were experiencing a mental health problem. The economic burden of mental illness in Canada is estimated at $51 billion per year.
Most of these data points are sourced from CAMH and although many are specific to Canada, we can assume that most developed countries would be in the same ballpark.
Several Forces Collide
For those of us not directly in the medical system, it feels as though the rise in mental health issues came out of nowhere. I think there are a few forces that have collided that are leading to mental health having a moment right now.
First, the stigma is lifting slowly and we are becoming aware. This is thanks to public and private sector led campaigns, advocates sharing their personal lived experiences, employers starting to recognize their role and technology helping us share more easily.
Next, with more affluence and income, we buy bigger houses, more expensive cars and nicer clothes. The obsession with economic growth (at rates higher than population growth) means we are all buying more (on average), often with money we do not have. With more stuff, we can become attached to it or fearful of losing it.
Also, those of us unemployed are feeling the stress of rising costs of everything from rent to groceries. Those of us underemployed are stressed about unsatisfied careers and unmet desires. Those of us not yet in the workforce are uncertain if there will be any jobs available.
And beyond personal economic factors, our expectations and desires of life seem to have lost grounding. We expect more of ourselves and those around us. And these expectations can lead to greater disappointment that we may not be equipped to handle.
Technology: Friend or Foe
As a technology entrepreneur for the past ten years, I am the first to question whether the way we’ve adopted technology in our society could be contributing to the accelerated rise in mental health issues we are facing.
If used well, technology can be an enabler for better access to information, better connections with communities and a platform to express emotions and creativity. If abused, technology quickly becomes the master and we become the slaves, unaware of who is in control.
It’s no coincidence that the rise in social media adoption over the past decade is consistent with the growth pattern of mental health issues, especially amongst young people. In fact, a study released last year by the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK found that Instagram, followed by Snapchat and Facebook, are the worst social platforms for teenager’s mental health, with respondents citing an increase in feelings of depression, anxiety, isolation, loneliness, FOMO and inadequacy when using these platforms.
Smoking was very cool in the 70s, and was featured in advertisements, TV shows and pop culture, and then once we became aware of the links between smoking and health in the 90s, it all changed. What smoking is to our physical health, I believe social media is to our mental health. And once we become aware of this, we may choose to take back control.
CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) is Canada’s largest mental health organization and since getting involved in the past few months, I think of the organization as serving three distinct mandates that support each other.
Locally, in the Greater Toronto Area and South Western Ontario region, CAMH is a hospital (with 500 beds) dedicated exclusively for mental health patients. Focus is critical for anything and by having a critical mass of patients with similar issues, the hospital attracts great talent.
Nationally, CAMH is an advocacy partner providing education and training for practitioners, and input to government on policy. For example, CAMH has been an active voice with the Canadian government during their current process to legalize marijuana.
And globally, CAMH is a research institute. With a research team of over 300 people focused on mental health, it is one of the largest in the world. The vision to connect the theory from research labs to the realities on the hospital floors accelerates everything.
My starting point with CAMH has been as a member of the foundation Board, and I continue to be impressed by the passion, commitment and dedication of everyone I’ve met towards the organization’s vision of transforming lives.
The Next Step
The moment is happening before us and our relationship with mental health is changing for the better. The progress we have made is impressive but largely confined to research labs, hospital beds and doctor offices. The vision I have is where mental health is respected in the classroom, at the dining room table and in the workplace. And to do this, many of us have a role to play in helping build an ecosystem of leaders, change makers and entrepreneurs not only focused on this space but working closely together in a supportive, collaborative and effective manner.