Multimedia review: Canada’s Mental Health Crisis


What’s not to like about Canada? I like Jillian Harris from The Bachelorette, minus her lack of clarity when it comes to choosing men; I like Degrassi: The Next Generation, the show that never runs out of conflicts that teenagers can have; and I like my friend from high school, who is originally from Vancouver and moved back for college, since Canada offers free tuition. Let’s face it: In the U.S., Canada’s ailments don’t top the headlines. Currently our news is saturated with the U.S. health care debate. That’s why I was surprised when I stumbled upon an online multimedia presentation about Canada’s tumultuous health care system for people with mental disabilities. The Globe and Mail’s series from 2008, “Breakdown: Canada’s Mental Health Crisis,” attempts to show the failings of Canada’s public policies, shine light on the everyday issues surrounding mental illness and sweep away the stigmas.

I’ve always been fascinated by coverage about mental health. Mental illness is something that plagues my own family; my youngest brother is autistic and my stepmother suffers from bipolar disorder, among other things; because, what I’ve learned is, if you have one disorder, it can be symptomatic of other disorders. Luckily, more than ever, there’s a lot out there on the subject. I remember, eight years ago, when my brother was diagnosed, I had never heard of autism, and many of the people I talked to hadn’t either. Now, I’m likely to stumble across a link on CNN about the subject on any given day, although most stories tend to zero in on afflicted children and possible causes and cures. For example, there was a lot of debate about autism being transmitted by vaccination shots.

The entertainment industry has become interested, too. But I think most people know that schizophrenia isn’t as romantic as Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind makes it out to be. The real John Nash even said, while he can’t recall exactly what delusions he had, that breaking codes for the CIA, leaving his findings in undisclosed mailboxes and fleeing from gun-wielding spies, was cinematic hyperbole at its finest. In the movie, his condition gradually improves over time with medication and the supervision of his loyal wife. A touching story undoubtedly, but the key point is that it’s also an exceptional story.

In real life, people usually need something more than the warm hand of a devoted partner. And, as the Globe and Mail’s multimedia package on health care coverage makes obvious, it is a real obstacle to get people the help they need. Not only is medication costly, but let’s not lose sight of the countless trips to the psychiatrist’s office to get even an initial diagnosis, and in worst-case scenarios, the cost of living in a psychiatric ward—for years potentially. Mental illness doesn’t just go away.

The site, compared to other multimedia presentations I’ve reviewed, does a fantastic job putting together an in-depth view of all facets of mental health. As I said before, most stories out there today talk about child diagnoses and medical breakthroughs. This series is refreshing: There are articles about different disorders, mental health and criminalization, seniors and diminishing mental health and the correlation between addiction and mental health. There is so much information, however, that better organization is called for. As it stands, one click on one page leads to ten other random links. It would serve the designers to group all the articles and features into separate categories that are easily accessible from the main page.

One featured video, by the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario, opens with a chilling fact: 1 in 100 people in Canada are affected by schizophrenia. The 25 minutes of content that followed were heavy, emotional and enlightening. The subject, Jesse Bigelow believed he was a prophet, and eventually, became convinced he was Jesus. But it bothered me how the videos from various health societies featured the same people who The Globe and Mail writers featured in their print stories—including Bigelow.  I would have preferred the reporters lose the overlap of sources and seek their own original interviews.

Also, the information is dense and repetitive, since the videos cover exactly what the accompanying articles, slideshows and audio files highlight. There’s so much material that it would take hours and days to sort through it all. What I found useful was the at-a-glance features that summarized the articles’ main, grueling details. For example, one “By the numbers” sidebar said that “9 percent of visits to the emergency room are related to mental health,” “16 percent of hospital stays in Canada are related to treatment for mental illness,” and perhaps most chilling, “$170,820 is required to keep a mental-health patient in [a] hospital for a year.” Features like this are reader-friendly for the busy readers who don’t have hours to peruse the site.

The series covers all its bases. It has stories from those who suffer, which is a given, but it also features discussions with experts and doctors, and allows readers to contact them with their questions. Readers can share their own stories and photos. There is a glossary of mental health terminology and a list of resources for further information.

The series closes with a section that no longer exists online and leads to an error page. From the link, it appears that The Globe and Mail staff personally implores the government to address and solve Canada’s mental health crisis. As a journalism student, this section took me aback. I’ve been taught to believe that the journalist’s role is to present the facts and then step back as everything unfolds. It’s not common in the U.S. that we read an article about public option health care in the newspaper and then see that same reporter petition private health insurers or the federal government.

… But The Globe and Mail takes a very different approach, in that it acts as the mediator and petitions authorities to take charge and do something. While it is unconventional, I don’t disapprove. I believe journalists should have opinions. If someone is going to write on a subject at length, in series form and with authority, I would hope he or she has come to develop some opinion and purpose. The writers of this series have heart and they want to see their labors come to some realization, even if it means spelling it out in plain English for everyone to understand.

After reviewing this series, it would be hard not to take Canada seriously.


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