Moving past the stigma around mental health

by Leo Almazora30 Sep 2020

With a rising acknowledgment of its impact on people and society, mental health has gone from being a taboo topic to a condition and disability that cannot be ignored. But even with this shift in perspective, there are still gaps and roadblocks that prevent Canadians from getting help when they need it.

In a new survey of Canadians, RBC Insurance found that 51% of respondents view mental illness, such as depression or anxiety as a disability. But a deeper dive into the results revealed that respondents who have needed to take time off due to mental health issues were more likely to accept it as a disability.

“We saw from the results as well that some still feel reluctant about admitting that they've had struggles with mental illness,” said Maria Winslow, head, Product Strategy and Management, Life * Health at RBC Insurance. “Fifty per cent of our respondents said that it was because they are a private person and they wouldn't share any struggles that they were having, while 45% said it was because they were afraid that they were going to be treated differently.”

While the results point to a tendency among sufferers to shut others out, Winslow said it’s a step forward from previous years’ results, where stigma was the top reason for people not to admit their struggles with mental health. The fact that people are stepping away from that catch-all explanation, she said, suggests a climate of more open conversation.

“I think the responses to our survey this year actually are defining what it is about disclosing mental health that is creating that reluctance,” she said. “Coming right out to say, ‘I'm a private person, so I don't want to share,’ or ‘I'm worried that if I do share, people might think I won’t be as productive’ or ‘I want to be alone and I think people might find it hard to know what to say.’ All of those things, I think, help to make it really clear what it is people are worried about.”

Aside from the more mainstream awareness of mental illness as a disability, respondents to the survey were more cognizant of the wider ripple effects of an imbalance in mental health. Seventy-one per cent acknowledged that it has a negative impact on their own well-being, while 65% cited its negative impact on their family. 

But even with that recognition, people still expressed a tendency to downplay feelings of anxiety or depression. One root cause, Winslow suggested, is the fact that symptoms of mental illness can manifest mildly, in which case people are still able to have a productive day. That can become a problem when the signs show up chronically or one day present themselves as a more acute attack.

“If you’re an office worker and suddenly you can’t type because your hands have seized up, you know you’re not ok, and you can take the next step by seeing a physician,” she said. “If you get up on multiple mornings and you’re not feeling ok, whether it’s because of a physical or mental illness, the first step is always to admit that you need help; absent of that, you may not get better.”

That’s what makes open conversations about mental health so important, Winslow stressed. As people continue to struggle with disclosing mental illness and seek to conceal their challenges, others may still pick up on even mild forms of anxiety or depression. In the absence of an explanation or discussion, they may make assumptions and draw their own conclusions. Meanwhile, the person suffering increasingly runs a risk of falling into a spiral of isolation and loneliness.

“What I see happening more recently is people who are comfortable with it are coming out with their own stories,” she said. “And it gives other people strength to open up about their own challenges. I think that will lead to a very broad conversation, at least in those circles, that can give comfort through the fact that they're not going through this alone.”

One other noteworthy finding is a rising interest among Canadians in purchasing individual disability insurance. According to Winslow, this year’s survey showed an 8% increase in respondents who are looking to purchase their own disability insurance – which covers mental illness in many cases – as opposed to just relying on their disability coverage from work.

“I think what the pandemic has brought to the forefront is that there is a likelihood of illness striking anyone at any time, impacting their ability to work and earn a living,” she said. “As an industry leader in disability insurance, we do see that mental illness is the leading cause of claims and we've seen that now for a number of years. But be it for a mental illness or physical illness, we need to ask ourselves, what would we do if we couldn't cover our monthly expenses or if our income was reduced?”

While many workplaces do provide disability benefits, it may cover only a fraction of a person’s monthly income. That means rather than taking things for granted, people must consider how much they spend every month, what they’d be willing to give up, and any new costs that may arise as they deal with their condition. In many cases, workplace coverage simply isn’t up to snuff, and individual disability insurance is necessary to avoid going into debt.

“There are also people who are self-employed who don't have workplace benefits,” Winslow said. “In that instance, they have to ask ‘how am I going to cover not just my personal expenses, but also my business expenses if I’m not earning an income?’ At RBC Insurance, we do have products that can help Canadians who need to manage and cover both those expenses if they were ill, and we encourage people to consult with an insurance advisor to find the solution to meet their needs and budget.”

Aside from covering lost income, individual and workplace disability plans also usually come with programs that let clients access resources to deal with various health issues, even when leaving the house is an issue. Navigation tools can help claimants find appropriate virtual care offerings in their time of need; Onward by Best Doctors, available through RBC Insurance, is revolutionizing the care and support provided to individuals on disability as a result of a mental illness.

But as helpful as those resources can be, they can only go so far. As Winslow said, people must be able to recognize not just when they need help, but also the kind of assistance that they need to get to a better place mentally.

“Support networks are great,” Winslow said. “But If you're off of work because you're depressed, and you can't get out of bed or experiencing anxiety to the point where you can't turn on your computer, it is probably advisable to seek counsel from a professional.”