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Robin Williams“When two disorders or illnesses occur simultaneously in the same person, they are called comorbid. Surveys show that drug abuse and other mental illnesses are often comorbid. As many as 6 in 10 people who have an illicit drug use disorder also suffer from mental illnesses. But the high prevalence of these comorbidities does not mean that one condition caused the other, even if one appeared first.”

National Institute on Drug Abuse

Whenever a celebrity dies, especially when they take their own life, the whole world is catapulted into a state of shock and confusion. How could this happen? Why? They were so loved! Now imagine that x infinity – it’s your mother, your father, your child, your partner.

This week the world experienced that shock again over the tragic death of Robin Williams, as we have so many other times in recent memory, including the deaths of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Peaches Geldof, L’Wren Scott, and Cory Monteith.

For a couple of days the internet explodes with mental illness and addiction resources and messages of support. “You are not alone.” “We need to pay more attention to mental health! When will this stop?” And then a couple more days pass, and it dies down. No one is talking about mental health any more except for those who were talking about it anyway – sufferers and loved ones and people who work in the field. Everyone forgets. People want to forget, because it’s not a fun thing to think about.

But it is necessary. We need to care about mental health all the time, for everyone, not only when a celebrity is involved. According to the CMHA, “suicide accounts for 24% of all deaths among 15-24 year olds and 16% among 25-44 year olds”1. And it can be anybody. Much like with crime, people tend to think that it would “never happen to them.” It would never affect their family, or someone they knew. No way. They would know if it did. The average number of Facebook friends for adult users is 338.2 1 in 5 Canadians suffer from mental illness. The odds are pretty good that everyone knows someone with a mental illness. Mental health affects everyone.

It’s also no secret that many of the celebrity deaths we hear about are substance addiction-related. Addictions are not often thought of as mental illnesses, but they are. Substance-related and addictive disorders are often concurrent with other mental illnesses – 20% of Canadians with a mental illness also have a substance-related and addiction disorder.3 Addictions are most commonly found to be concurrent with anxiety disorders, mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, most of which have very high suicide rates as independent illnesses.4 90% of people who commit suicide have a mental illness, and 60% have a mood disorder.5 Addictions and other mental illnesses tend to feed and play off of each other, and “it is difficult to determine which problem normally appears first…one problem tends to worsen the symptoms and effects of the other.”6

Because of the way the word “addicted” is overused, it has come to be associated with behaviour that is not easy to stop, or that someone doesn’t want to stop, but would still not be that hard to change if necessary. People with a substance-related disorder experience a “loss of control of amount or frequency of use…[and] use despite consequences”.3 It does not mean they are weak, lazy, rebellious, dumb, or simply have a deathwish. They may be using substances as a way to cope with a very difficult situation in their lives or a concurrent disorder.

The fact is that most people with mental illness don’t wear it on their sleeves. Some are brave and outspoken about it, of course, but most are silent. Like with any personal difficulty, they may not want to share it publicly, or they may be worried about what people might think. Will their friends treat them differently, or worse, desert them? Will it affect their career? Will other people be hurt?

Rather than expect everyone to tell everyone everything, the key is to treat everyone with empathy and kindness at all times. Even if they seem perfectly fine or like they don’t need it. You never know what someone is going through. Listen to what they’re not saying. Be observant. And most of all, if someone does reach out, be there. It’s easy to dismiss blatant cries for help as attention-seeking behavior, particularly in young people. However, if someone is seeking attention, there’s likely a good reason for it. Maybe that’s exactly what they need.

For those who have dealt with mental health issues themselves, or have a loved one who has, times like these can be frustrating. Finally, everyone seems to understand the matter at hand, but yet, it is often those same people who may have neglected or mistreated people in their own lives. As unfair as it seems, celebrities are so powerful because they touch so many people. Their reach is wide enough to make a large number of people take notice of whatever it is that they are doing. They make people listen. Keep the conversation going, and let these tragic losses serve as examples and reminders of what is happening everywhere, all the time.

Please see our resources page for help in your area.

1. http://www.cmha.ca/media/fast-facts-about-mental-illness/#.U-t6mfldWSp

2. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/02/03/6-new-facts-about-facebook/

3. http://www.camh.ca/en/hospital/about_camh/newsroom/for_reporters/Pages/addictionmentalhealthstatistics.aspx

4. http://www.camh.ca/en/hospital/health_information/a_z_mental_health_and_addiction_information/concurrent_disorders/concurrent_substance_use_and_mental_health_disorders_information_guide/Pages/what_are_cd_infoguide.aspx

5. A Current Perspective of Suicide and Attempted Suicide, J. John Mann, M.D. Ann Intern Med, 2002.

6. http://homewood.org/learning-about-mental-illness/mental-health-information/concurrent-disorders

About Chelsea Ricchio

Chelsea Ricchio is the Creative Projects & Communications Assistant at Healthy Minds Canada. Previously, she worked for HMC as an intern during the summer of 2014. She is a fifth-year student at the University of Toronto, where she is the president of Active Minds at UofT, a mental health awareness student group. She will be graduating in June 2015. You can follow her on Twitter and check out her blog here.

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