Let’s Talk About Sickness and (Mental) Health

This week is Bell Canada’s annual Let’s Talk event, which aims to get people talking about mental health. So, I decided to once again take some time this week to take a critical look at the initiative and the types of conversations it activates.

Aside from raising money for mental health research, Bell Let’s Talk is focused on reducing stigma, engaging with the ways mental illness is minimized and stigmatized. This year’s campaign features the #SickNotWeak hashtag campaign, generated by spokesperson Michael Landsberg, which aims to reconfigure the ways we look at people with mental health.

“The perception has been and still is that somehow we bring on our own mental illness through weakness of character. ‘I am sick not weak.’ If we believe that, the stigma will fade”

  • Michael Landsberg
Male doctor holding his finger to his mouth saying "shhh"
What’s his secret? He’ll never tell.

This hashtag is intended to be a battle cry for those with mental illness, equal parts embracing of distress and acknowledging the inner strength to persevere. This campaign is brought on by the stigma that ‘mental illness’ is not real, that people with depression are simply making it up, or that depressed people just aren’t trying hard enough. The campaign implies that having mental illness anointed as a real ‘sickness’ will legitimize the experiences of sufferers–not unlike the push to acknowledge addiction as a disease and not a choice. Once someone is diagnosed with a sickness, our society believes they deserve to receive care and support–they are not responsible for what is happening to them and, as such, we as a society have a duty to pay restitution.

Another male doctor holding his finger to his mouth saying "shhh"
Wait why are there so many stock photos of doctor’s making this gesture on Google?

It is perversely fitting that last week in the Toronto Star we saw the most recent incarnation of the belief that mental illness is somehow fake, with (horrifyingly…) a University of Toronto professor presenting the trendy meme that modern university students (and millennials more generally) are emotionally fragile and incapable of dealing with the harsh realities of the world. The author demands that students with mental illness come out with their labels or else not be accommodated on a university campus. Why is it that none of my professors required to know the specifics of my disability (diagnosis or anything else) yet I was offered accommodations, like extended exam time in quiet rooms that the author seems to argue against here, with almost no opposition? In part, I believe, it is because my physical disability is seen as a valid limitation, deserving of accommodation, whereas the mentally ill cannot prove their limitations are legitimate in the same way.

Female doctor also holding her finger to her mouth saying "shhh"

Despite the obvious benefits of the legitimizing power of sickness, a disability studies perspective, and my experiences with a physical disability, make me feel that perhaps this is not the right direction to go in the fight for mental health. Wheelchair users have long been seen as “really” disabled through our proximity to hospitals and sickness. On the one hand, being thought of as “sick” can render certain privileges, such as ease of access to charitable donations, being excused from work without penalty, and facing little resistance to accommodations when attending school. All of these benefits are things people with mental illness want/need and presumably once the mentally ill are anointed as ‘sick’ too, the grassy sun-kissed fields of accommodation will be open for them to frolic across as well. But clenched within the other hand lurks a dark reality. In the long term, the ‘sick role’ has only served to further subjugate the physically disabled, as they now fight the uphill battle of convincing the normals that they are not sick, contagious, or pitiful. In some ways, the benefits won by subjecting ourselves to the label of sickness can become that which ensnares us within a complicated social service system that does plenty to ensure we subsist but little to help us actually thrive.

Another female doctor holding her finger to her mouth saying "shhh"

Mental illness is real. It has always been real, it is not a new thing (even if we refused to talk about it before) and those who live with it struggle in ways that others do not. But I’m not so sure the path to mental health is paved in diagnosis and medicalization. Rather, I wonder if it is paved through collective compassion and empathy. The path to mental health is not paved by “proof” of suffering or consolidation under the medical model, but through accommodation and support being offered to all who struggle to function in a normative world. Regardless of the reason.

The pathway to mental health is in identifying and rectifying the ways our very world, physical and imagined, disable us. Yes, we are not all disabled the same, but disabled all the same we are.