Despite campaigns to stop the stigma and start the conversation about improving mental health care, those suffering still face shame and other challenges as they struggle to deal with the issue.

The challenges remain despite the fact that almost everyone is touched in some way by mental health issues, including addiction, and that the consequences of not dealing with them can be significant.

Allan Strong of the Self-Help Alliance knows what it's like to live with the stigma. He's been hospitalized four times in his battle with bipolar disorder.

He says people "sometimes say ‘Well it's funny, you don't look like someone with bipolar disorder.' And I'm going, really?"

That's because one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness. The other four, will know someone who has.

Strong says "It's not a situation where it's us and them. Mental health is a situation that affects all of us."

Despite the prevalence of mental illness, the stigma remains. Strong sees it in his daily work, and it is something he understood even in his youth, when his mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

"I was telling a friend of mine about that and literally the reaction one step away was ‘Well you're not going to get it, are you?'"

Dr. John Vanderkooy is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Grand River Hospital.

He says "Just because you have a difficulty or an illness that's above the neck doesn't necessarily mean that that illness is different or scary, it just means we need to get a better understanding."

That understanding is important both to treat mental illness and to deal with the financial costs associated with it.

Mental health and addiction issues cost Ontario $39 billion each year, including $28.7 billion in lost productivity like time off work.

The province spends nearly twice as much on mental health and addiction as on the entire educational system from kindergarten through grade 12.

And the latest provincial budget promised another $93 million. Health Minister Deb Matthews says "It will definitely increase capacity, get more people the treatment they need."

A ten year strategy for mental health is also expected to be released in June.

Don Roth, executive director of the Grand River branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), says moving quickly is the key to helping their growing local client base of 35,000.

"We look forward to a comprehensive strategy that looks at early intervention, looks at prevention services, education and continuing investments," he says.

Meanwhile, the fight to deal with the stigma attached to mental health has some heavy hitters stepping into the ring, including popular Guelph-based author Robert Munsch.

Strong adds another name to the list, "I have Catherine Zeta-Jones' disorder, which is also known as bipolar."

That may bring some comfort to the 500,000 Canadians off work each day due to a mental health issue.

Coming up in part two: A look at the services available in Waterloo Region for people dealing with mental health issues.