With David Grauwiler, Executive Director
of the Canadian Mental Health Association – Alberta Division

What’s driving the mental health conversation?

Some of us will experience mental illness in the course of our lifetime, and almost all of us will experience mental health challenges (including addiction) as we work, live, and play in our communities.

Choosing to focus on health and wellbeing includes a focus on mental health. Visit your doctor, talk to a psychologist, use online resources and assessment tools. Health is health, illness is illness. We all have mental health, just like we all have physical health.

What do people need to know when they are questioning their mental health or the mental health of a loved one?

Mental illness is not a terminal illness nor the end of their career. A diagnosis simply pinpoints treatment options. Mental illness (including addiction) can be treated in various ways with recovery possible in almost every case. People experiencing mental illness tend to recover more rapidly if diagnosed and treatment started as early as possible. 

We all need time to examine our mental health and the mental health of our loved ones. A simple suggestion is to listen carefully when those closest to you share input about changes in your behavior and/or perception. They know you best, so try to listen and not be defensive. 

What are the basics that need to be in place to make sure people can take care of their mental health without getting lost in a complex system?

Mental health is not a single set of services based in hospitals and clinics. When we face a mental health challenge in Canada, we often find ourselves frustrated by the matrix of intersecting supports, both clinical and community-based. 

• We need to know what mental health looks like and what mental illness (including addiction) is. Between health and illness lay the ordinary challenges to our mental health which all of us face. Understanding that changes in sleep patterns, high levels of anxiety and/or low mood are diminishing our mental health should move us to seek help before things become more serious.

• We need to know what resources exist in our community. Knowing when we need help is only relevant if we know where we can go for help. When we break a limb, we know to visit an emergency department to be examined and x-rayed. We leave with a cast, and it cost nothing. Sadly, most Canadians when asked where they would go if they or a loved one was experiencing a challenge to their mental health did not know where to go.

• We need access to affordable, appropriate, and timely supports to mental health therapies and treatments. Most mental health interventions are not covered by our public health care system. In fact, many Canadians are unable to access the supports they need due to cost, lack of resources, and stigma. Health equity is needed in Canada.

What can the broader community do to build capacity for better mental health?

We all face challenges to our mental health in our workplaces, homes, and communities in which we participate. The truth is mental illness and related challenges are pervasive within our population.

Actions related to mental health are often placed only on an individual level, however to truly create a mentally healthy person, we need to think more broadly about mentally healthy homes/families, neighbourhoods, workplaces, and communities. The burden placed on individuals living with mental illness needs to be shared by all of us to ensure we reward help-seeking behaviours with access to timely, appropriate, and affordable supports. 

What should we do when we find it all just too much?

Because of the COVID-19 disruption, we have all experienced fear, social isolation, and relational tension/grief. For the first time in many decades, Canadians have experienced collective trauma and grief related to death by disease, and grief related to reduced capacity, autonomy, and relationships.

Hard times call us to observe those closest to us. Check to see if there are signs of stress or changed behaviours. Watch yourself as well. Ask gentle questions and offer to be there when needed. Just don’t try to ‘fix’ things.

Learn about mental illness and the practices which support mental health. Develop a plan tied to resources you would engage with in your community to seek help for anyone experiencing declining mental health. We need each other. Talk and take action.