May 3, 2017 7:00 am

Is mental health stigma lessening? Canadians opening up more than ever, survey suggests

In 10 years, emergency room visits by children and youth for mental health, or substance abuse issues is up by 63 per cent. Hospitalizations of those patients is up by 67 per cent. Lama Nicolas reports.

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Alicia Raimundo knew she was different from her peers when she was only six years old.

“The things that would make my friends excited or happy would make me sad or anxious. I hated going to birthday parties because I was always worried I’d say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing,” Raimundo told Global News.

She admits she’s facing a lifelong battle with mental health. She was hospitalized three times – twice in university.

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“In a lot of ways, I felt like a superhero, if that makes sense, because I had two different identities: I had the person who was at night trying to get by and battle my own personal bad guys, anxiety and depression, and I had that person that people saw their daughter, their friend, their student. And the more I would lose my battles against anxiety and depression, the less of that other person was there,” she said.

READ MORE: These 3 groups are at ‘high risk’ of mental health issues in Canada. Here’s why

Raimundo, now a mental health advocate, is opening up about her story in hopes that more Canadians, young and old, know that what they may be going through is more common than they think.

“For me, I wish we had mental health awareness weeks all year long,” she said.

Turns out, like Raimundo, more Canadians may be aware and willing to talk about mental health than ever before.

Is mental health awareness improving?

After years of campaigns and advocacy, mental health stigma may be lessening while awareness may be increasing, according to promising new Ipsos findings released exclusively to Global News.

Eighty-five per cent of Canadians surveyed say they consider mental health to be as important as physical health – another 12 per cent say it’s even more important, the pollsters revealed.

Half of Canadians (49 per cent) say they’re personally more comfortable talking about their mental health compared to two years ago.

READ MORE: Why more Canadian millennials than ever are at ‘high risk’ of mental health issues

Fifty-one per cent even say they feel like Canadians, on a whole, are generally more comfortable with discussing mental health, too.

“There is a silver lining here. I find it encouraging that stigma seems to be lessening. It is shrinking and people are more comfortable talking about [mental health] and getting help in any way they can,” Jennifer McLeod Macey, vice-president of the polling firm’s Health Research Institute, told Global News.

“We’re slowly seeing mental health as part of our overall health and as an important component. We have a long way to go but it’ll continue to nudge up. But it may take years before it’s fully normalized,” she said.

It’s the third year the polling firm zeroed in on their Mental Health Risk Index and the report’s release marks Mental Health Week.

READ MORE: How mental health should be taught in Canadian schools

Based on Canadians’ levels of stress and feelings of hopelessness and depression, the report classifies a whopping 41 per cent of Canadians as being at “high risk” for mental illness. That’s a significant increase from 2016’s 35 per cent.

The findings point to some grim patterns: 36 per cent of Canadians admitted that several times throughout the year, they felt stressed to the point where it impacted their daily lives.

Another 24 per cent said there were several instances in which they felt stressed to the point where they couldn’t even cope. Nineteen per cent said they felt hopeless almost every day for a couple of weeks or more.

A glimmer of hope in the fight against mental health stigma

But the results offer some hope, too: more Canadians than ever before are talking about mental health concerns, getting help, and taking time off to manage their mental well-being.

Forty-two per cent of Canadians said they talked to someone about their mental health in the past year, up seven percentage points from last year, and 11 points from two years ago.

READ MORE: What happens when mental health education isn’t taught to kids?

Twenty-three per cent said they talked to a primary health-care provider, such as their family doctor, while another 16 per cent reached out to a counsellor, psychiatrist, or psychologist.

Another 10 per cent even wrote about or posted about their mental health woes online – millennials led the way with this openness with 24 per cent sharing their mental health difficulties online in the past year.

Ed Mantler, vice-president of programs and priorities at the Mental Health Commission of Canada, isn’t surprised by the results.

The years of promoting mental health awareness and shedding stigma are paying off, especially on millennials, he said.

READ MORE: Major depression is on the rise in youth, especially teenage girls

“We’ve been tackling stigma and forcing awareness on youth, so now we have a population of millennials who are more comfortable than previous generations for speaking up early about mental health issues they’re facing,” he said.

“It’s a good news story in a way because we know early intervention is an important factor in recovery, so people seeking help and getting that early intervention is far more impactful than waiting until they’re in their 30s and 40s,” he said.

Creating an open space to discuss mental health is huge, according to Mark Henick, national director of strategic initiatives at the Canadian Mental Health Association.

READ MORE: The No. 1 mental health issue Canadian employees take time off work for

“Sometimes one of the most therapeutic acts you can do when you’re struggling is open up to others,” Henick said.

It’s what pushes Raimundo to keep sharing her story and encourage others to do the same.

When Raimundo was in the hospital for her mental health, another patient reached out to her and handed her a necklace that said “hope.”

That word meant a lot to her.

“If I was going to beat this, if I was going to make it to the other side, I needed to have something to hope for, to get me through,” she told Global News.

READ MORE: One-third of Canadians at ‘high risk’ for mental health concerns

“I hoped to watch my sister grow up, I hoped to watch her graduate from high school. I wanted to see her come into somebody who was awesome and independent,” she said.

The experts are glad mental health is coming to the forefront of Canadians’ minds.

“A lot of people who may have been hidden in their house or suffering and we wouldn’t know are showing up to be diagnosed or are showing up for treatment,” Raimundo said.

READ MORE: Why the WHO chose depression as its focus this year

Still, there is some way to go. Twenty-six per cent of Canadians admitted they may not know enough about mental health.

“It’s just right now that it’s starting to change. We’re a part of something huge and it’s only going to get better from here,” Henick said.

The Ipsos poll was conducted in mid-April 2017. A random sample of Canadian adults were interviewed online for the survey, which was weighted to bring it in line with Canadian demographics and which has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

Where to get help

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide PreventionDepression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868  all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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