By Brigadier-General M.A.J. (Jennie) Carignan, Commander 2nd Canadian Division and Joint Task Force (East)
Bell Let’s Talk Day on January 30 provides us the opportunity to take stock of mental health at 2nd Canadian Division. Good health – both physical and mental – is the foundation we need in order to thrive personally and professionally.
In Canada, one in five people suffers from a mental health problem (1) and 49% of Canadians have experienced mental health problems (2)
Every week, more than half a million Canadians are absent from work due to mental health conditions (3).
Nevertheless, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, more than 6 in every 10 Canadians living with a mental health problem do not seek help because they fear being stigmatized (4). Given the prevalence of mental health issues, why is there so much resistance to seeking professional help when we are struggling?
In our military culture where it is important to project an image of strength, we can agree that certain judgmental attitudes or prejudices exist about mental illness. Moreover, stigmatization becomes self-imposed when a person living with mental illness internalizes those negative attitudes. As such, prejudices cause more suffering than the mental health problem itself and remain an obstacle – even a barrier – to recovery. They exacerbate feelings of shame, guilt, isolation and low self-esteem.
It is opportune to ask ourselves why there are fewer prejudices about more obvious physical injuries such as a wound, a fracture or a sprain. Is it because we can see the “injury”? Yet, it seems that there is little stigma attached to invisible physical conditions such as ulcers or diabetes.
What is behind this stigmatization of people living with mental health problems? I would suggest that there are two reasons that explain these stigmatizations.
The first is a lack of understanding of mental health problems, which is likely due to the taboos that have kept these issues in the shadows for too long. In addition, there is a tendency to be uncomfortable with what we do not know, and prejudices enable us to compartmentalize the unknown.
The second reason – also related to a lack of understanding – is the false premise that people affected by mental health issues are weak and lacking in moral fibre.
In fact, there is no correlation between a person’s strength or intellect and their mental health issues. Many famous people have lived with depression, including Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Isaac Newton, Oprah Winfrey, Charles Darwin, Boris Yeltsin and Lieutenant-General (Retired) Roméo Dallaire. All strong leaders who have contributed significantly to society – in short, they have changed the world.
It is therefore essential to seek help when you need it. We have excellent – and confidential – services available to us.
Fortunately, society evolves and there are some encouraging signs. Today, 87% of Canadians are more aware of mental health issues than they were five years ago, and 85% think that attitudes about mental health issues have improved (5). Nevertheless, from my point of view, we must continue to counter the stigmatization of mental health problems that persists in our culture and undermines our resilience.
And how do we do that? There are no magic formulas; however, research has shown that one of the most effective ways to counter stigmatization is the personal approach, namely encouraging affected individuals to talk about it openly (6).
That’s what makes Bell Let’s Talk Day so important. Through talking about our experiences, those of us who have been affected by mental health challenges will quickly realize that we are not alone. In this spirit, I encourage you to express yourselves, open up, and share your experience in order to contribute to an environment of acceptance and mutual support.
However, in my opinion, it is the way we treat each other in our daily activities and interactions that has the biggest impact on our mental health. Working in an environment where we feel safe, feel that we are contributing to the organization and that our contribution is appreciated is good for the soul.
In essence, the adopted leadership style has an enormous impact on the team’s mental health. That is why I encourage a personal leadership based on trust, respect, communication and appreciation. By setting a good example, leaders can help build working environments conducive to creating solid work relationships based on mutual help and support among colleagues and comrades-in-arms.
By fighting prejudices and stigmatization, we can create an environment in which the members of the 2nd Canadian Division team feel safe and are more likely to seek the support they need in order to recover quickly.
We all share a responsibility to counter the stigmas around mental health, and leaders – at all levels – have a duty in that regard.
There is no doubt in my mind that a person with mental health challenges can have a rewarding career in the Canadian Armed Forces. That’s what being human is all about.