From The Kitchener-Waterloo Record
Mental illness strikes all walks of life, experts sayFriday November 24, 2000
Fear and misconceptions about mental illness cause many people to suffer in silence, a Waterloo psychiatrist says.
Speaking at a recent community forum on the social taboos that stop people from seeking help, Dr. C. Willy Galarraga said, "the history of psychiatry always has a sense of the obscure and mysterious."
He described a centuries-old treatment that involved drilling holes into a patient's skull to let the demons escape and noted the notion of an asylum is still with us today.
Galarraga said four factors affect a person's intent to seek help:
Fear of stigmatism;
Stereotypes of mental illness;
Stereotypes of mental health professionals;
Denial of difficulties.
Quite simply, he explained, mental illness is a medical disease that causes mild to severe deficits in thinking, perception and behaviour.
For Anne Marie Webster, a nurse and educator with Grand River Hospital's mental health program, a one-day depression-screening program held last month at Fairview Park mall was a troubling example of the prevalence of mental disorders.
"We were really surprised to see the high numbers," Webster said of the free service offered by Grand River.
Of 25 people who completed the depression-screening questionnaire at the mall, 18 had a score indicating a major depression was either likely or very likely. Nine people admitted thinking about suicide.
Followup care was recommended for 20 people and many were referred to specialists on the spot.
"People were really grateful," Webster said, recalling an older man who had suffered from severe depression for more than a year, but felt so ashamed he didn't tell his doctor. Within a few days of the screening, he started treatment.
"There are a lot of people suffering, and it's so sad they're suffering because mental illness is such a stigma," Webster said.
Galarraga said he strives to break down stigmas of mental illness, starting with his patients.
"I try to help people understand these disorders are very prevalent," Galarraga said.
Anyone, no matter his or her age, sex, education or wealth, can be affected by a psychological disorder.
"We all have the same rates to develop mental illness," he said.
A common but incorrect assumption, Galarraga said, is that the brain is utterly mysterious and unexplainable, and therefore does not belong to the medical realm.
In fact, "the brain is as physical as the heart and pancreas," insisted Galarraga who, like all psychiatrists, was first trained as a medical doctor and then specialized in psychiatry.
A mental illness, he said, is no different than a disease like diabetes -- both originate in the body and affect the person.
For this reason, Galarraga said, a mental disorder should be treated like any other illness -- without fear or prejudice.
Unfortunately, that is not often the case. Because society views mental disorders as strange and potentially dangerous, people are afraid to seek help or even talk about their problem.
The stigma is so overwhelming that people often hide the illness from their own families.
"People don't talk about that kind of stuff," said Galarraga, who has found most patients don't know if their family has a history of mental illness. They may only recollect an eccentric uncle or emotional aunt.
Another widespread misconception that scares away many people is that psychiatrists push mood-altering drugs as a cure-all for mental illnesses.
With each new patient, he said, he spends 45 minutes just talking about their disorder and what it means to them.
"Our role is to restore function," Galarraga said, describing his profession as a humanistic specialty that combines compassion and medicine.
Warning signs of mental illness:
Marked personality change.
Inability to cope with problems and daily activities.
Strange ideas or delusions.
Prolonged feelings of sadness.
Marked changes in eating or sleeping patterns.
Thinking or talking about suicide.
Extreme highs and lows.
Alcohol or drug abuse.
Excessive anger or hostility.
If you notice any of these symptoms, call Grand River's mental health outpatient services at 749-4310.