Our Communal Responsibility to Destigmatize Mental Illness Became Apparent to Medical Student Zovel Hyre When She Lost a Close Friend to Suicide
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health and neurological disorders affect one in four people worldwide. This statistic places mental health disorders among the leading causes of global illnesses and disabilities. Although various forms of treatments are readily available, statistics also denote that only about one-third of people with a known mental health disorder seek care from a professional. This would then pose the question: why?
For much of history, mental health was thought to be caused by the supernatural. This belief system ascribed mental health to demonic possession, or a transcendental wrath for wrongdoings. Treatments were brute, and caused many to withdraw from family and friends, so that they would not be subject to torturous procedures, or proclaimed to be evil and undergoing punishment for a multitude of iniquities. This is a concept that has evolved into a more scientific basis, but the stigma remains. The scientific evolution, as it pertains to mental health, has enabled neurologists to attribute mental health to neuronal disorders that are substantiated by somatic signs, such as neurotransmitter deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, morphological changes, etc. The scientific growth enabled psychiatrists to attribute mental health to mood and behavioral disorders, independent of physical substantiations. Although science has evolved, the prevailing stereotype still affects society.
In this fast moving era, it’s sometimes so hard to pick up the phone to check up on a loved one or friend, let alone take the time to visit them. It becomes so easy to hit “like” or comment on their social media photo, and think that such a superficial interaction will suffice
This stigma is exacerbated by the media and embedded in the perceptions of many that view mental health patients as harmful, violent, and debilitated. However, those with mental health illnesses have a greater propensity to harm themselves than to harm others. This paradigm encourages a person with a physical ailment to freely and willingly seek care, yet fosters an environment in which those who feel mentally unstable tend to shy away from healthcare and are prone to social isolation. No one wants to feel judged or overlooked – when someone is attacked and injured, it is believed that harm has been inflicted on them. When a person experiences a mental health crisis, it is believed that it is a personal, avoidable, and self-inflicted decision. This portrayal leads to a cycle in which the stigma behind mental health doesn’t allow those affected to seek help, and it doesn’t create awareness for those who can lend a helping hand.
It isn’t easy being in my age group of early to mid-twenties. We are often times too young to have our life entirely figured out, but too old to have absolutely no inclination of our life’s course. It isn’t easy finishing university or college, or never having completed either, and being heaved out into the real world.
The stress and pressures of trying to find a job or simply being accepted into a desired post-graduate program are colossal. It isn’t easy feeling like you need to impress those around you, search for validation, and compare yourself to peers and public figures that display their lives on social media. The need to feel a sense of gratification, as though you’ve amounted to something great, and to attain societal acceptance, is often times a great burden to carry. It can be so great a burden, that it prevents a person from seeking help when needed.
I lost a close friend to suicide just over a year ago. He had been fighting a silent mental battle that no one knew existed… It is a loss in which there has never been a real sense of closure, but instead an overabundance of unanswered questions.
When I tell people that I’m a medical school student, they often cringe and say that they couldn’t bear to see their patients pass away. My reply had always been the same: “I would consider myself blessed, just from having had the opportunity to save them, and knowing that I have done all that I possibly could; it’s an opportunity and not a write-off.” Now, my response has expanded.
I lost a close friend to suicide just over a year ago. He had been fighting a silent mental battle that no one knew existed. We were friends for eleven years, thus representing a huge fraction of my youth. It is a loss in which there has never been a real sense of closure, but instead an overabundance of unanswered questions, hurt, and regret. This was the loss of an athlete, a best friend, a strong contributor to society, a confidant to those who were graced with his presence, and one of the most outgoing, supportive, and jovial people you could ever encounter. It was unexpected. Suicide, and death on a whole, is considered to be the most extreme prognosis for mental health.
Contained emotions don’t just dissipate and perish.
In this fast moving era, it’s sometimes so hard to pick up the phone to check up on a loved one or friend, let alone take the time to visit them. It becomes so easy to hit “like” or comment on their social media photo, and think that such a superficial interaction will suffice. In all of my university years of studying neuroscience, psychology and philosophy; practicing at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) – the largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital in the Canada; leading in homeless outreach; advocating against bullying; and now being in medical school, I would have given absolutely anything to not see my friend slip through the cracks. Stresses in life are real, pressure from society is absolutely real—whether self-proclaimed or actual—and a lack of comradery in such a strong social media age is surely apparent.
So now, let me empower you! You don’t have to be a doctor to face life-or-death situations. Everyone around you, at any given time, can be facing personal issues and quote-on-quote “life or death” situations. If you see a person doing well, commend them. If you see a person facing obstacles, encourage them. So, I implore you to take the time to connect with those around you and be the best healer that you can be. You never know when your words may be the key to unlock someone’s prison.
In the toughest of times it is going to take a little encouragement, some faith, and a lot of support. Wait upon your turn-around, and encourage someone else as they find their way towards theirs. If things aren’t going as planned, don’t be ashamed to earnestly admit it. We must always keep in mind that contained emotions don’t just dissipate and perish; rather, they are buried alive. It wasn’t until the tragic event of my friend’s passing that many people found the strength to unveil that they too face struggles. Mental illness or instability is not a personal failure, a lack of strength, or a decision. The onus is on us to break the silence and stigma surrounding mental health, through random acts of kindness, mindfulness to those around us, and outreach to those in need. We are not alone in our struggles and obstacles; we all face them. Let’s remember that battles are fought physically and mentally, and battle wounds aren’t always apparent. Let’s all take baby steps, by being kind to those around us, devoting time to reach out to loved ones, supporting those that are in need, and caring for those that seem okay.
Zovel Olivia Hyre, BSc (Hons) is a second year medical school student and a mother. She completed an Honors Bachelor of Science at the University of Toronto, with a major in neuroscience, and a double minor in psychology and philosophy. She broadened her horizons through research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, working in the pediatric brain injury ward and complex continuing care at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation hospital, homeless outreach, public speaking, and completing her athletic career as a national soccer player.