EDITORIAL: Big companies should cover mental health

by | Mar 17, 2017 | Editorial

In ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Indian writing, mental illnesses were treated as a supernatural phenomenon where it was believed a form of punishment from the gods or a demonic possession.

We may not have progressed as far as we think.

A former medical student from University of Saskatchewan is now facing a lawsuit from Royal Bank of Canada for more than $170,000 for a student line of credit he says he feels he won’t be able to pay.

After studying for two years in medical school, Bryan Robson experienced depression and anxiety. He didn’t know he was suffering from a mental illness until he was later diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder, which prevents him from becoming a doctor.

A 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that medical students are at a high risk for depression and suicidal thoughts; 27 per cent of them experience these problems, which appear in eight to nine per cent of the general population.

Robson thought he would be covered by his disability insurance but it turned out that the policy only covered physical illness, not mental illness.

Herein lies the question: after all the work that has been done to surrounding mental illness, why is a large corporation such as RBC more supportive towards physical illness than mental illness?

Large companies should modify their policies for people who are diagnosed with a mental illness. If there are policies for physical illness, then there should be policies for mental disorders.

It has been a long human journey even to raise such questions. After the earlier assumptions about divine punishment, around 400 B.C.E. the Greek physician Hippocrates understood mental illnesses to be a disturbance in physiology. A thousand years after, the first establishment for mental illness was created in Spain to house sufferers.

But the key issue is that whatever the settings, throughout Europe the mentally ill were treated poorly. Warner Perspectives, a blog run by the University of Rochester, wrote that they were kept with criminals in dungeons, chained to walls and beaten. “Treatment” was also given using bloodletting, purging, induced vomiting and using the “swinging chair,” a contraption spinning at high speeds to induce patients to vomit, empty out their bladder and supposedly lead them to a tranquillized state.

Since then, the perspective and understanding of mental disorders has changed, albeit at very slow pace, with the help of science. It’s clear throughout history people with a mental disorder have been subjected to stigma and treated inhumanely.

Today, there are programs to raise awareness about mental illness, dialogue found in every communication mode, fundraisers to help facilitate treatment for the mentally ill and solutions that allow people to seek out help and rehabilitate themselves.

According to Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, one in five Canadians has a mental disorder, and by the time people reach age 40, one of two will have experienced a mental disorder.

We now commonly note that there are many people with a mental disorder who nonetheless have brilliant minds and have contributed to society significantly. Influential figures that had a mental disorder are commonly listed on sites like History.com. Both Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian inventor and painter, and Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, had dyslexia. Edgar Allen Poe, the famous poet, battled depression and Vincent van Gogh, a leading 19th century painter, is widely believed to have suffered bipolar disorder; even Jane Austen is thought by some to have had Addison’s disease.

There’s conversation regarding mental illness in schools, workplaces and even through Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign to create public dialogue.

But with many large corporations that have larger impacts on people’s lives, their unwillingness to show compassion and support for people with mental illness creates a step backwards in the movement toward better social awareness and understanding of these problems.

What will it take for stronger participation from the private sector? Should there be public outcry? Mass protests? Or does a simple penned letter suffice for corporations like RBC to create another insurance policy for students struggling with mental illness.

At the end of the day, there’s only so much individuals can do to raise awareness and help people with mental illness. Canada’s corporations need to step up and implement policies and procedures to support those who suffer.