Dr. Paul LatimerGetting treatment for a mental illness is often a lot more difficult than simply calling up your doctor and making an appointment. For many people it involves a painful process of accepting that they have a problem and being willing to expose themselves.

Many people who come to be treated for the first time say they have put off treatment for several years because of fear. They fear the reactions of their co-workers, friends or family – of being seen as weak, strange or overly dramatic. If it’s not the reactions of others they fear, it is often the shame of feeling like a dependant on therapy or medication that keeps them away.

Sometimes, the fear of people’s reactions is simply perception, but the reality is that mental illness is stigmatized in our society. In fact, mental illness is one of the last examples of widespread institutionalized discrimination just as race and gender have been in the past.

Mental illness is recognized to affect a large portion of the population from all walks of life. The World Health Organization tells us it is the second leading cause of disability and premature death worldwide – outstripping cancer and second only to heart disease. Still, in both Canada and the United States, insurance companies can openly and legally impose treatment limitations for mental illness that differ significantly from limits on all other medical conditions.

Because of real and perceived stigma, mental illnesses are severely under-treated. Of the people diagnosed with depression, only about 10 percent seek treatment. Depression affects approximately 20 percent of the population at some point during their life and this under treatment leaves a significant number of people to deal with it on their own.

Unfortunately, those who are left untreated are doing themselves and society a disservice. Not only do untreated mental illnesses result in higher use of non-psychiatric medical services, they cost businesses billions of dollars every year in lost wages, lower productivity and increased use of sick and disability leave.

Untreated depression can mean a person is dealing with more than the characteristic feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness. It is also bad for an individual’s overall physical health.

Research shows that once you have had a heart attack, your chance of dying from cardiovascular disease is four to six times greater if you also suffer from depression. Depression is an independent risk factor for heart disease just like high cholesterol, obesity or smoking.

Other disorders that worsen with depression include cancer, diabetes, epilepsy and osteoporosis. Diabetics are twice as likely to be depressed as others and those who are depressed are twice as likely to suffer complications of diabetes such as heart disease, nerve damage and blindness. Depression more than triples the likelihood of dying in the 10 years after a stroke. These complications can be avoided by being treated with antidepressants.

It is important to realize that while our societal stereotypes are discriminatory, mental illness is not. It can affect anyone of any walk of life, background, ethnic group, educational status or religion.

If you think you suffer from a mental illness, resist succumbing to stigma and ask your doctor about getting treatment.

Dr. Latimer is president of Okanagan Clinical Trials and an Okanagan psychiatrist.

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