If initiatives were as easy to dispense as kind words, combatting mental illness might be more effective.
On December 6, Lady Gaga released an open letter on her website saying that she has coped with PTSD for the last five years and continues to do so. In the letter, Gaga speaks about her journey with chronic pain, psychotherapy, and medicine. She concluded by saying that, to her, kind words are the best medicine.
Gaga isn’t entirely wrong. According to mental health research, support systems can make or break recovery. As the US National Institute for Mental Health notes, having little social support following a traumatic event increases one’s risk in developing PTSD.
In a study published by Personality and Individual Differences, Dutch peacekeepers seeking social support had fewer PTSD symptoms than those who did not. On the contrary, more negative social encounters exacerbated PTSD symptoms.
But support goes beyond friendly gestures, and limited social resources worsen many cases.
With long wait times for mental health programs, there is a risk that people who have experienced a traumatic event will see their symptoms increase in severity over time. Yet wait times are status quo. The current wait time for the Ontario Shores PTSD program, for example, is over a year.
While kind words help, accessing reliable and consistent support is a much more complex matter.
When someone is diagnosed with a mental health condition there are many things they have to consider. For instance: medications, therapy, accommodation, time off work or school, lifestyle changes, and barriers caused by stigma like employability. Many of these factors cost money.
According to the Canadian Association of Mental Health, mental health is currently underfunded by $1.5 billion in Ontario, with mental illness accounting for 10 per cent of the disease burden. Meanwhile the need for mental health resources rises. In Toronto, mental health hospitalizations have increased by 60 per cent for those aged five to 25 in two years.
Yet Parliament Hill has stalled to implement any relief to mental health care programs.
In December, the federal government withdrew an $11.5 billion offer allocated for mental health and home care over 10 years. Provincial ministers unanimously declined the offer from the federals because many disagreed with the federal government determining how provincial health dollars are spent.
On the contrary, mental health advocates say that valuing mental health at the same level as physical health is vital. With more than four million Canadians struggling with anxiety or mood disorders, mental health needs to be funded in relation to its need.
Access is important, but consistency is also key.
Many free or geared-to-income programs have short duration to accommodate a backlog of patients. For example, case managers at Peterborough’s branch of the Canadian Association of Mental Health are typically only available for 1-3 months. While this is a helpful short-term solution, the lack of consistent treatment fails to consistently address symptoms over time. Many experts suggest that 8-12 sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy are needed to be effective. Alternatives like private therapy can cost as much as $100-$250 per session. Some conditions, like PSTD, last a lifetime.
OHIP covers medications for patients in hospital, but not for outpatients. An SSRI antidepressant I was personally prescribed in 2014 cost over $100 per month. Therapy is also not covered by OHIP. These barriers are daunting, especially at low incomes, but mental health often also affects motivation. This is why access to resources should be as seamless as possible.
Kind words can go far to lift someone up, but words alone will not make mental health services more accessible. People with mental health conditions face serious symptoms and challenges. For example, someone diagnosed with PTSD may face flashbacks, dissociation, nightmares and insomnia, panic attacks, depression and hyper arousal. Gaga herself said she deals with dissociation, saying she often feels paralyzed by fear.
“The trauma in my life has helped me understand the trauma of others,” she said.
Maybe Lady Gaga’s statement can help make mental health something that is more relatable. But in terms of medicine, much more needs to be done at an institutional level to have a system that genuinely heals people.