Mental Illness Awareness Week, which wraps up Saturday (Oct. 12), is an annual national public education campaign, co-ordinated by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health, designed to help open the eyes of Canadians to the reality of mental illness.
With that in mind, the following is a portion of — Why share my darkness? The face of mental healthcare — a story of recovery and hope by Brett Batten that was featured as a cover story in the October edition of Hospital News. Batten is a former St. Joseph’s forensic mental health care patient and now is a champion for others through advocacy.
"I started thinking about all the labels I have had; insane, criminal, crazy, mentally ill, manic-depressive, I could name a few more.
Labels are basically stereotypes; mental molds that we cast for people so we feel separate and safe from them. With stereotypes comes stigma and with stigma comes isolation. This isolation helps protect the strong and healthy but it drives those who are different underground and often in the case of mental illness — people don’t seek help.
I have spent 20 years as a mental health care consumer, my journey began when I was 15 years old. I have been in several hospitals for varying lengths of time. I have been arrested, incarcerated, judged, found guilty and found Not Criminally Responsible (NCR).
My circumstances have always been different but my mental illness has been a constant. At times I have had some extreme symptoms of mental illness; they have taken me down roads I would normally have avoided. Psychosis can be frightening. I have personally experienced hallucinations, which I was unable to recognize as outside of reality. But even when I was most ill, I was always Brett Charles Batten. I always carried the same person inside me.
I have abandoned my anonymity in the hope that I might change people’s perception of mental illness even when it intersects with the law. As humans we make mistakes, some more serious than others, but everyone has the right to learn from that mistake, grow from it and change. Seven years ago, I was in hospital, now I am in the early stages of publishing a book about my experiences. My story is one many share but few talk about. I have chosen to reveal myself because we need to talk about mental illness. There are too many misconceptions tattooed on our psyches.
The images from headlines and movies sit next to mental illness every day. Mental illness is in our neighbourhoods, workplaces and schools. We are surrounded every day.
Statistics show that one-in-five Canadians suffer from a mental illness and the World Health Organization says by the year 2020 depression will be the single biggest medical burden on health. When we see a person with a cast on a broken bone we can understand it. The majority of mental illness is invisible to the eye. You will usually have no clue the person at the table next to you has depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
The stigma associated with mental illness is simply fear. People fear the unknown and most know little about mental illness. And one of the reasons stigma is a continuing battle is because it is so widespread. I have encountered it among family, neighbours and in the talk and gestures of strangers. If I’m honest, I am at times guilty of it as well.
I was a forensic mental health care patient, that is, I live with a mental illness and have also been accused of a crime. People in my circumstance are often the victim of a `double stigma,’ which sheds a further negative shadow on those seeking treatment. And too often media focuses on high profile cases, which paints an inaccurate picture of the relationship between violence and mental illness. For me stigma is subtle in a profound way.
One word or one joke can eliminate dignity for an entire group. Stigma is such a battle because we condone it. Whether it is a news story or a movie, we are not yet outraged when we see mental illness portrayed with the darkest lenses. Stigma is a part of popular culture. Only when we stop to realize we are perpetuating misconceptions and making light of the suffering of others can we eliminate mental health stigma.
Mental illness is not a choice. Most would be terrified by the prospect of losing control of their minds or emotions. Most people pride themselves on being rational and in control. What could be worse than losing control of your mind, your sense and will, your emotions and desires; And to have it happen against your will? We become more human when we can view the individual living with a severe mental illness as unlucky, like we would for a physical illness, and share with them understanding and compassion for a diagnosis that was thrust upon them without their choice or option.
It’s ironic, the brain is located on top of our bodies, but we hold mental illness below all else.
*I use the term darkness as a representation of my mental health journey. Others may not see their illness as darkness, but for me that’s an accurate metaphor."
Next is a short, but impactful video featuring real patients, health care workers, students, advocates, families and members of the community whose lives have been touched by mental illness.