Lisa Guenther, one of the panelists for Thursdays discussion, talks about social isolation to a crowded room (photo: Marie Hanifen)

Panel tackles social stigma of mental illness

One in five Canadians, and about one in four university students, suffers from a mental illness - and they're often coping with it all alone.

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Andrew Clouter begins each morning by popping eight pills. By the end of the day, he's usually taken four more. The medications are designed to help him get out of bed, stay awake and concentrate. Most of all, they help him fight his exhausting battle with depression.

"(Depression) is like walking around with a lead blanket on," he says, talking about his day-to-day struggle.

Like an increasing number of university students, Clouter is struggling with a mental illness - in his case, major depressive disorder. A report published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry made headlines in North America last year after researchers claimed that a quarter of Canadian and American students surveyed showed symptoms of depression. According to the study, the number of students reporting an actual diagnosis of depression had risen from 10 per cent in 2000, to 18 per cent in 2008.

For Clouter, living with a mental illness has not only made his university life considerably more difficult, it has made a social life almost impossible too.

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A short film addressing the social stigma faced by individuals with mental illness. Created by Dr. Andrew Starzomski's patients at the East Coast Forensic Hospital.

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The porportion of all hospitalizations in Canada in 1999-2000 that are due to anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, major depression, personality disorders, eating disorders and attempted suicide in, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Clouter arrived as a first year student at Dalhousie in 1996. He has earned a bachelor degree in both science and commerce, as well as a master's degree in business administration. Currently, he is earning a master's degree in psychology. He has been at Dalhousie, on and off, for about 15 years. Despite attending the same school for so long, Clouter has had a difficult time making friends.

"I've been completely isolated. I don't know how (to make friends)," he says. "If I was in a situation where I was out with people, I would be uncomfortable being there."

Clouter's depression first struck when he was in his second semester at Dalhousie. For the entire month of January, he didn't attend a single class.

"I didn't want to do anything," he says. "I couldn't get myself to get out of bed,"

Clouter's difficulty with socializing, his intense fatigue and his lack of motivation due to his illness may be part of the problem, but it's certainly not the whole story. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, 49 per cent of Canadians said they would not socialize with a friend who had a serious mental illness.

Last Thursday night, Cafe Scientifique presented a public discussion with assistance from the Dalhousie health research group, Novel Tech Ethics. Café Scientifique is a government program designed to "provide insight into health-related issues of popular interest to the general public." All the discussions produced by the organization are in café's, pubs or restaurant, and all are welcome to come.

Thursday's event was called "Not well enough alone: mental illness and social isolation," and was hosted at by the Humani-T Café in Halifax's North End. The discussion focused on the kinds of social issues that mentally ill individuals like Clouter face every day. The discussion was led by three panellists and delivered to a room packed to capacity with approximately fifty people.

Susan Bryson, a panellist that evening, is a professor of psychology and pediatrics at Dalhousie. According to Bryson, the two primary predictors of mental illness are what she calls "language disorders and social impairments" - meaning that individuals who lack social confidence or have difficulties with language-based tasks like reading are more at risk to develop a mental illness.

Using individuals with autism as an example, Bryson explained that autistic children are often socially shunned because they exhibit "odd" social behaviour. The isolation they feel as a result can contribute to the development of other mental health disorders, particularly anxiety disorders and depression.

"Having a language disorder, or having a social impairment, wouldn't' be a problem if you were in a society that accepted you," She said.

Lisa Guenther, another panellist and an assistant professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, has been studying the effects of even more severe forms of social isolation - solitary confinement.

"Even in the very beginning of the penitentiary system... wardens noticed (that) as soon as they instituted solitary confinement as a practice that isolated people radically, from others, they started to experience mental, physical, emotional and even cognitive disorders," she said.

The effects of solitary confinement can present themselves in very obvious ways, from trembling and body aches, to intense anxiety and paranoia.

Isolation and loneliness can be devastating emotionally, but they can also impair our ability to think properly, panellist Andrew Starzomski said in an interview after the discussion.

"One of the things that I've read about loneliness that's interesting was just how much it effects cognitive processing," he says. "When you ask a person in a psychology experiment to do something that takes cognitive effort... the lonely folks... they score way worse. Effortful processing, when you have to think and keep track of something, they just are markedly impaired."

Starzomski is a clinical psychologist at the East Coast Forensic Hospital in Dartmouth. The hospital has 70-90 in-patients at any given time that were found to be not criminally responsible for committing an offense because of a psychiatric illness.

About three years ago, Starzomski co-founded a program that would allow his patients to interact with the community by making short films. The films cover a wide range of topics, from patients addressing the social stigma they face, to showcasing their musical talents. Last November, the films were showcased in a film festival in Dartmouth called Atlantic Minds Wide Open. The films have helped to change the views of mentally ill individuals both inside and outside the hospital walls.

"There can be a lot of stigma among health-care workers at times," says Starzomski. "So... patients show their films to staff and staff are amazed that patients could be doing work of that sort."

Clouter is making progress of his own too.

After seeing a doctor on a regular basis, taking some time off work and school to deal with his issues, and beginning his current medicine regiment, he is doing much better, consistently, in school. Previously Clouter's semester's at school would either be marred with F's and incompletes, or lined with straight A+'s. Currently, Clouter is on an upswing, and it's the longest one he's had since being struck with depression 15 years ago. But it still takes a lot of work.

"I know how disastrous it can be if I slip just a little bit," he says.

Right now Clouter is preparing a thesis to defend in August. After that, he wants to work on getting his PhD and becoming a psychology professor.

"I just need to keep on track," he says. "I know I can."

Comments on this story are now closed

I think the biggest thing to realize, if you suffer from a mental illness, is that you are not alone at all. There are over 50 million Americans diagnosed every year with an emotional disorder. There is probably more people than you know that you can connect with successfully.

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