For Mental Illness, Moving From Fear to Empathy to Action

Simply talking about mental illness online is not enough. We need mental health investment, engagement and education so we are empowered to provide help when someone is in distress.

By Alex Bishop
Published March 24, 2018

Recent incidents such as the Locke Street Violence and two other recent situations involving people with mental health illnesses have made me think a lot about how intense the feelings of fear can be.

On the one hand, we want to be supportive and brave in ways like the #LetsTalk campaign. But I am realizing that many of us really struggle to show compassion when other people's mental health symptoms flare up in public.

My privilege at being a tall, white male makes it easier for people to defer to me. My growing up with an abusive father and many years of therapy makes these situations of violence more "normal" so that I don't react as much.

My volunteering and advocacy in mental health makes me understand the system. My years in sobriety allow me to show compassion toward people with mental health illnesses (alcoholism is a mental health illness).

Last month, I was at a bar watching my favorite team in the Superbowl when a man started getting progressively more aggressive with patrons and staff. Some people moved away, and others froze when he approached them.

I decided to engage him. We spoke, and over a period of time I convinced the man to allow me to take him to a mental health service, which I only knew about from my previous experiences.

When I came back into the bar, people's reactions were mixed. Everyone wanted him to leave when he was being aggressive. Some were thankful that I was able to help him, and many were confused about why I would have engaged the man.

This week on Locke street, a man walked down the road, angrily yelling at people and stores. People on the street were visible disturbed.

My friend, who worked internationally advocating for children and womens' rights, was scared.

Here is a woman who knows more than most about violence, is very well educated about mental health and she had a big reaction. We spoke afterwards and she told me she was embarrassed that her first reaction was about herself instead of showing compassion for the man who was clearly unwell.

The stigma around mental health, I believe, is a reason why advocacy for it is so difficult. It is why funding for mental health has been a low priority until recently.

The NDP have announced their plans for a new Ministry of Mental Health and Addiction, while the Liberals announced multi-billion dollar funding for it this week. They take different approaches, yet both progressive parties see the need to do more.

I think a big hurdle is that I'll bet most of us simply do not know how to help people with mental health illnesses. There is a shortage of psychiatrists to get people diagnosed, a shortage of beds and services to treat people in an acute state, and few lon- term support programs to prevent the symptoms from flaring back up.

The fact that the solution is so unknown or inaccessible, combined with the stigma, may lead to our heightened fear response.

Studies show that simply talking about mental health through social media isn't always the best approach. Research shows the best way to decrease mental health stigma is to put people in contact with mental health patients, both online and in person.

People like me, who have sought and received treatment, are able to engage with the community about their experiences.

Another way to reduce the stigma is to empower people to know that they can help. Helplessness often leads to increased fear. Look at how, when we stood up to the fear and intimidation of the Locke Street Violence, we felt empowered and less afraid. Can't we empower citizens in the same way with respect to mental health?

If your loved one was sick and had cancer, would you know where to take them? You would head to a family doctor or, if a referral was made, to a specialist.

If someone on the street fell and had a heart attack, would the response be to get that person out of here or would you offer them medical help?

If there are no front-line services and treatment for the mentally ill, What can we do but be afraid?

Would people be as afraid if they knew who they should call? Would people see themselves as being so different from people with mental health illnesses if they could help?

I hope we speak to our provincial candidates about how they plan to help people with mental health illnesses.

I also hope the NDP, Conservatives and Liberals put a plan into effect not only to fund mental health properly but also to fund access and education so that we all can know how to move from our emotions into taking action when we see someone suffering.

It is the politicians' responsibility to ensure that every person with a mental health illness who seeks treatment is able to receive it. Isn't that what compassion really is? Empathy in action?

Alex Bishop works with businesses and people in political worlds to improve their marketing and fundraising processes. He is a serial entrepreneur and partner in a Private Capital Company. A volunteer, advocate, registered lobbyist and in love with his city, Hamilton. He is a proud father of two amazing children who teach him how to be a better man. He can be reached on Twitter @alexbishopcan.


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