Lean on me

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Last week was Mental Health Week in Canada. It was also National Nurses Week, and perhaps that is more than a coincidence. Mental health is, as it says, a health issue; but for far too long we’ve treated it as some kind of social taboo, something we’d rather not talk about. Oh, it was all right to have a “real” issue, like cancer, or diabetes, or even pneumonia; but mental illness, or any mental health or addiction challenge was a source of shame, something to be hidden, denied, rejected. The standard response to people suffering from depression, for example, was “Get over it. Pull yourself together and stop feeling sorry for yourself!”

An exaggeration, perhaps, but not too far off the truth. Fortunately, things are beginning to change and we are more open, informed, and accepting of this kind of health issue. Some think we may have gone too far in some areas. Providing grief counselling to everyone remotely connected to a tragedy may seem to feed a sense of victimhood, but there is, at least, an awareness that emotional and mental health concerns do have a reality and present a challenge that isn’t always treatable with pep talks.

In this issue of the Times, there is a surprising number of articles dealing with mental health. Surprising, because this wasn’t planned by us; we didn’t have a meeting and decide to cover the subject in a special issue. No, things happened this week that forced the subject on to the pages.

The launch of the Mental Health and Addictions Health Hub for Children and Youth in North Grenville at Kemptville District Hospital last weekend brought to the public’s attention some unsettling facts. The Hospital, for example, has had a rise of 35% in mental health-related emergency room visits by those 24 years-old and under. It shows the extent of the problem in our community.

Norrie Spence, the Director of Connect Youth, which deals with homelessness among youth aged 12-25, reported that the agency’s Kemptville apartment has had over 125 referrals this year. Child homelessness is a reality in North Grenville: this apartment is for youth 16 to 25. In his remarks, Frank Vassallo, CEO at KDH stated that there is “a dire need” for mental health and addiction services across Canada, and North Grenville is no exception.

In another context, we have an article about a workshop being put on in Kemptville to help women deal with the negative effects of body shaming: making women feel that their worth as people is somehow linked to their body size and shape. This is not a vanity thing: when professional models, successful in the eyes of the world as icons of beauty, confess to hating their own bodies, it is clear that something more is happening. The tragic thing is that this negative attitude to their own body can somehow bring some women to believe that abuse from a partner is all that they deserve. Ideas and fears are passed on to children.

A consultant pediatrician who spoke at the Health Hub launch, stated that almost every patient he and his colleagues see has some kind of mental health challenge. Children as young as 7, or even younger, are experiencing genuine mental health challenges these days. Bullying is a major problem for so many of our children. The scandal of women being abused by partners is becoming better known, but the number of children and men who suffer from physical abuse is staggeringly high too.

How has it come to this? Was it always this way, and we just hid it from ourselves and each other? Or is it a factor of the society we have shaped for ourselves? We are faced more and more with images and standards which are practically impossible for anyone to maintain. We are increasingly cut off from family and neighbours, either by physical or social distances. When I was growing up in a working class neighbourhood in Dublin, we didn’t know we were poor, because everyone was poor. It was when we started to be shown, through television, for example, the kind of lives others lived, that we started to compare our lot with theirs.

Perhaps the same thing is happening on a broader scale today. We see more of the world than we ever did before, through social and traditional media. We feel the pressure to fit in, to conform to the images that society tells us we should.

We need to be honest with ourselves and with each other. The problems others have are ours too, if not now, then some time. As Bill Withers sang: “Just call on me, brother, when you need a hand. We all need somebody to lean on. I just might have a problem that you’d understand. We all need somebody to lean on.”

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