Commentary  How’s your head?

Mental illness is more common than you think, and there’s nothing wrong with it

Mental illness is a huge, and under-discussed, problem in Canada. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (MHA), “20% of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime.” Given the size of that number, as you might expect, “Mental illness affects people of all ages, educational and income levels, and cultures.” Despite the prevalence of mental illness, what never fails to surprise me is just how little it is talked about, and to what degree it is stigmatized.

2010 was particularly bad for my friends and family. Untreated, growing, and ultimately debilitating paranoia, anxiety, and depression caused a close friend to drop out of graduate school. His rapid deterioration led his wife to abandon him, taking their newborn child with her.

Two years into their relationship, the girlfriend of my 22-year-old roommate cheated on him with his best friend. This triggered a psychotic break which hospitalized him for nearly a month, prematurely terminating his exchange studies and forcing his early return to France.

My sixty-something-year-old landlord once again stopped taking the medication regulating his bipolar disorder. After what sounded like a very exciting manic episode, he was found unconscious in his apartment, and was hospitalized for three months. He returned last week in what appears to be just as frenzied a state as when he left. I’m getting really tired of 4:30 a.m. blaring sessions of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” on continuous repeat.

Over the course of a few years, I watched as what I thought was my friend’s pot-induced paranoia blossomed into full-blown schizophrenia at the ripe age of 28. Unable to get his condition “under control,” he was removed from the home he shared with his common-law partner and their two young children. My friend’s disease has claimed, among many other things, a number of his teeth and his ability to truly believe that we, his friends and family, are real people.

A few things have struck me about the nature of mental illnesses. They have the ability to “take down” the most intelligent, creative, and strong-willed people I have known, just as easily as they can lay waste to those that appear more vulnerable: nobody is “immune.”

Like physical ailments, mental problems can develop in a slow, creeping fashion or like a bolt of lightning. Unlike with physical ailments, those suffering from mental illness and the people around them are often reluctant to believe that these problems really exist – or they believe that the mentally ill are wilfully not controlling them, that they’re “letting themselves go.”

That last part, in my opinion, is particularly devastating, because it can prevent the stricken from seeking or accepting treatment when it might benefit them the most. Worse, it engenders the notion that the sufferer is somehow at “fault.” This can cause the stricken to isolate themselves, or cause their friends and family to withdraw contact.

True, we humans are peculiar creatures. It is often very difficult for the untrained to try drawing a line between healthy and pathological behaviour and thought patterns in themselves and others, particularly when things turn a bit bizarre. However, if in doubt, there is no harm in asking yourself or someone you care for, “Are you alright?” If there is uncertainty, there’s no shame in seeking a professional opinion, just like you would do for a dubious wound.

It’s very important to understand that, “A complex interplay of genetic, biological, personality, and environmental factors causes mental illnesses,” as the MHA writes. It’s equally important to understand that these illnesses can be fatal. Again, in the MHA’s words, “Suicide is among the leading causes of death in 15-24 year old Canadians, second only to accidents.”

A number of resources are available for McGill students. McGill Mental Health can be reached at 514-398-6019 and at If you’re not sure and just want to talk, try Nightline, at 514-398-6246.