I recently added a comment to Stephen Ibaraki's post 'Develop Without Borders for over $160,000: Contribute your ideas and talent to WIN FOR YOUR CHARITY' (http://blogs.technet.com/cdnitmanagers/archive/2006/07/10/440999.aspx) offering further encouragement to get involved and help. In that comment, I mentioned that people often have personal reasons which motivate them to help charities and non-profit organizations. On reflection, I thought that I would talk a little about one of mine. It is by no means the only reason for my work with charities but it certainly is important to me. Please bear with me and eventually I hope that you will see not only is there a personal interest but there is practical, economic value as well.
By now you are perhaps wondering what I am talking about. The subject is 'Mental Illness'; a topic, which, a little like religion and politics, is taboo to even mention for some people; perhaps fear of the unknown. The stigma associated with Mental Illness can often be as crippling to the sufferer as the disease itself. It is life changing in all aspects imaginable. It ruins personal lives and careers. It can also be a silent killer. To set the scene let's look at a few stats for Canada:
- Mental Illness indirectly affects all Canadians at some time through a family member, friend or colleague.
- 20% of Canadians will personally experience a Mental Illness in their lifetime.
- Approximately 8% of adults will experience major depression at some time in their lives.
- About 1% of Canadians will experience bipolar disorder (or "manic depression").
- Schizophrenia affects 1% of the Canadian population.
- Anxiety disorders affect 5% of the household population, causing mild to severe impairment.
- Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in both men and women from adolescence to middle age.
- Almost one half (49%) of those who feel they have suffered from depression or anxiety have never gone to see a doctor about this problem.
- Stigma or discrimination attached to Mental Illnesses presents a serious barrier, not only to diagnosis and treatment but also to acceptance in the community.
- Annual cost to the country in treatment, disability payments, etc. ~$25 billion.
- ~4% of all admissions in general hospitals are due to anxiety disorders, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, major depression, personality disorders, eating disorders and suicidal behavior.
...and this is just the good news. It is getting worse! Our lives are becoming more pressurized and demanding, which is contributing to triggering Mental Illness in those people who are pre-disposed to the problem; yes, pre-disposed. There is no question in my mind that there is a genetic component. The nurture vs nature argument rages on but not for me! Regardless of what you believe regarding causation, it is a huge problem. Next time you walk down the street or look around at work, ask yourself, "which of every 5 people that you observe is a sufferer or may be one day!". We don't go out with that in our minds each day but those are the facts, and the economic and personal consequences are devastating. Have you known a colleague who suddenly didn't appear for work one day and is on long term leave with 'mental exhaustion'?
Why is this so important to me? There are two reasons; one personal and one economic. On a personal level, my younger son was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder (a mental disorder in which a major depressive episode, manic episode, or mixed episode occurs along with prominent psychotic symptoms characteristic of schizophrenia, the symptoms of the mood disorder being present for a substantial portion of the illness) a little over two years ago. In effect, at that time we 'lost' our son; no he didn't die, which must be the hardest thing to bear, but he will never be the same again. In time and with the right treatment, hopefully he will be able to have a reasonably productive life, but Mental Illness is a life sentence; there is no cure. As an individual you live each day wondering what tomorrow will be like and as a parent, it is impossible to put it out of your mind. As a sidebar, my son's illness was triggered by smoking just a couple of joints of pot, which he, of course, now regrets! Who says that pot isn't mind altering? It certainly is for those who are pre-disposed to psychotic type illnesses. So for those of you out there who shout long and weary about pot being harmless, you need to listen to the medical community a little more. There are too many other people like my son and I am sure some of them work in the IT industry.
Right now we have a shortage of skilled IT workers. What are we going to do with the ones who suffer from Mental Illness; throw them on the 'garbage' heap? Many are talented, well educated, skillful and very productive people. Ask yourself honestly, would you hire someone with a history of mental health problems? Shortage or no shortage, to me there is no choice but to be compassionate and try to re-habilitate these people. But how do we do that? The health care system is creaking at the joints. Much of the burden falls upon the non-profit societies who are often largely staffed by volunteers, many with mental health problems themselves. They have to run 'lean and mean' to maximize the dollars that go to helping people. BTW helping people doesn't just mean directly. Public education programs are just as important to try and remove the stigma and get people re-employed. Just like any small business, they use computers. They typically cannot afford a resident technician and are very dependent upon volunteer help. That's where we come in! The skills available in the IT community are like 'gold' to these people. For lack of good instruction or training they probably don't always operate efficiently or with the best tools. Something that we might think is routine might make a huge difference to them.
So I know why I help on a personal level. They try to help my son. In addition, you and I can make a difference by volunteering to help these societies put once productive people back into the workforce, and in turn help us all! For example, I recently approached the BC Schizophrenia Society (www.bcss.org) offering Windows and Office training. My approach was well received and I am hopeful that in the near future something can be organized. I also have little doubt that once 'inside the door' I will see other areas of opportunity.
My last word is, 'get educated about Mental Illness; ignorance breads misunderstanding and misjudgment'. Don't be prejudiced. Look under the surface when faced with the possibility of hiring someone who in truth has an 'illness' and not an 'affliction'. Would you reject someone who suffers from asthma and may be just as prone to absenteeism due to illness? Look at what these people can do for you when they are fit and well. Keeping them gainfully employed may well be just as important to their ongoing mental health as any other treatment that they get. Medication can often help but support and understanding are just as important.