On April 17th, 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was added to the Canadian Constitution. At the core of this Charter lies equality rights; all are equal under the law and deserve to be treated with respect, regardless of race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or any other individualizing factor (Harnois, 2002). According to the 2001 World Health Report, a significant number of Canadians still experience discriminatory attitudes in their workplaces and personal lives. These attitudes are directed towards individuals with chronic and difficult-to-treat conditions – mental illnesses.
Mental illnesses affect more than 20 per cent of Canadians – equal to 1 in 5 individuals (Stephens, 2001). So why are so many Canadians continuing to experience discriminatory attitudes in their workplaces and homes? To answer this question, we’ll have to take a trip back in time. Throughout history, mental illness was often though of as deviant – often evil – behavior. As the Christian church gained power and influence during the Middle Ages, mental illness was touted as the devil’s work…demon possession or witchcraft. Despite how evolved and open-minded you consider yourself, these ancient biases still carry weight in today’s society. You may not think that your bi-polar cousin Ed in possessed by the devil, but you may feel apprehensive towards him without knowing why.
Part of the reason lies in our biology – specifically, our neural circuitry. Throughout human evolution, the brain has evolved an exceptionally strong ability to distinguish “errors” – that is, perceived differences between expectation and reality (Rock, 2006). When we perceive an “error”, an ancient area of the brain connected to fear circuitry lights up like a Christmas tree (Rock, 2006). Moreover, when the orbital frontal cortex is active, metabolic energy is drained from the prefrontal cortex, which supports higher intellectual functions such as logical reasoning (Rock, 2006). The combined increase in “error” signaling and decrease in logical reasoning results in an animalistic emotional response – one of fear, discomfort, and a general feeling of something being wrong. Unfortunately for your bi-polar cousin Ed, your brain kind of has it in for him.
Combating our ancient neural circuitry is easier when you put yourself in Ed’s – or anyone else with a mental illness – shoes. Those with mental illness often experience a loss of social esteem, respect from colleagues, and general confidence in their abilities after being “ousted” as mentally ill (Barker, 2016). Researchers have argued that the stereotypes and discrimination that people with mental illnesses are faced with are just as detrimental as the disorders themselves (Overton, 2008). It is estimated that upwards of 60 per cent of Canadians will avoid seeking treatment due to fear of being publicly labeled (Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2016). Can you imagine the outcry if a Cancer sufferer died because they were too ashamed to ask for help? How would you feel if your daughter suffered from untreated panic attacks for a decade, because she never sought help in middle school as she was too afraid of what her friends would say? When dealing with something that our brains inherently fear (differences, change) we must fight back with compassion. Start with getting to know someone who suffers from a mental illness – everybody knows someone. When we reach out and humanize those who suffer, we take a tiny step towards acceptance and away from bigotry…and over time, tiny steps add up. Take a look around your workplace, your school, your home, and appreciate the complexity and sometimes flawed nature of the individuals around you. At this critical crossroads in our societal journey towards acceptance, every individual counts. Your compassion could save a life!
By: Alex Mercer, July 2017