Michael Kimber's blog began about two years ago, as a love letter to the girl who stuck with him through his lowest days. In Colony of Losers , he writes how one morning in November, 2009, at the age of 25, he woke up in his Halifax apartment stricken by anxiety so severe he could hardly get out of bed, how his parents paid for a therapist when he was put on a six-month waiting list, how in his wide-ranging search for a cure he tried mood-boosting almonds, happy-themed YouTube videos, mindful mediation and finally antidepressants.
And at the end of all this, he started writing a blog. On March 28, 2010, he lost his not-dream job as a “search engine optimizer,” and nearly the girl as well, but the medication had started to work, and he was sleeping again. This was the day, as he puts it, when he realized, “No one could save me. I had to save myself.”
By June, he was writing openly about his experience with anxiety and depression. Today, his irreverent, expletive-splattered blog is verging on one million hits and, now living in Toronto and working for a documentary film company, he has signed with a literary agent.
He also receives 3 a.m. e-mails from people hoping he will talk them out of committing suicide. Strangers, learning of his blog, spill their darkest secrets as carelessly as wine at a party – or throw unsolicited advice in his face. He has even heard from a former teacher who kept her own bout with mental illness secret for fear of losing her job. He knows others who haven't told even their own families.
By “coming out,” as Mr. Kimber calls it, he is daring people to judge, hoping to force understanding through confession – he is the modern incarnation of the early mental-health advocates who began coming out themselves in the 1980s, when the closet was crowded. Like those early voices, storytellers such as Mr. Kimber may be the best hope of reducing the enduring stigma that people with mental illness are afflicted with.
Not much else appears to be working. Stigma is a term bandied around so often that it has taken on the quality of an incurable disease in its own right.
In 1963, Canadian psychiatrist Erving Goffman wrote a classic definition of stigma, calling it the “spoiled identity” that disqualifies an individual from full social acceptance. There are undeniable issues that develop from a diagnosis of mental illness, especially when symptoms are acute and untreated: People suffering from depression and anxiety have, unsurprisingly, higher rates of absenteeism from work, are more likely to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. In the manic stage, people with bipolar disorder often behave erratically, experience delusions, or make reckless financial decisions. When Vincent Li beheaded a stranger on a Greyhound bus in Manitoba in 2008, his diagnosis of schizophrenia – and the media frenzy his gruesome act generated – only heightened a public fear of people suffering with psychosis.
But part of the tragedy is that the stigma itself prevents people from seeking out the treatment they need. Yet the longer treatment is delayed – and the more isolated people feel – the harder recovery becomes, a problem made worse by growing waiting lists and bed shortages for psychiatric patients. In Vincent Li's case, for instance, his ex-wife reportedly refused to get help for him, in part, out of concern about how he would be treated, and a lack of understanding about his illness.
Studies in Canada and internationally have shown that attitudes and behaviour toward people suffering from depression and bipolar disorder, and, especially, schizophrenia, have barely budged in the past decade.
In some cases, public awareness efforts may have even entrenched certain misconceptions – stressing the genetic and biological causes of mental illness has also shored up the false belief that that it cannot be successfully treated, and that even patients in recovery cannot be competent employees or reliable tenants. The term “mental illness” has become a misleading catch-all for a range of complex and very different illnesses and disorders. And the most pernicious misconception of all shows little sign of retreat: that the majority of people with mental illness are prone to violence.