What do the following people have in common?
- Margaret Trudeau, mother of current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
- Michael Landsberg, Host of TSN’s Off the Record
- Amy Sky, Canadian Singer and Songwriter
- James Bartelman, Ontario’s 27th Lieutenant-Governor
- Elizabeth Manley, Olympic Medalist
- John Bentley Mays, Award Winning Toronto Writer
- Melda Clark, Two Time Award Winning Owner of Monk Funeral Services Ltd.
- Norman Endler, Professor of Psychology at York University
- Stéphane Richer, Two Time Stanley Cup Winner
- Shelagh Rogers, CBC Radio Broadcaster
Every individual above has suffered from some form of mental illness and has chosen to share his or her story with the public.
Mental illness is an umbrella term for many diagnoses — major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety, phobias, bipolar, eating disorders, paranoia, postpartum depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), borderline personality disorder. Bell has used well known Canadians to promote the message. At this very moment more than 1,000,000 Canadians are dealing with mental illness. That is more than the entire population of Nova Scotia!
We have made progress in mental health awareness, in part because of celebrities, such as Canadian Olympian Medalist Clara Hughes, who have revealed their mental health history. In 2014, Clara rode her bike 11,000 kilometres for 110 days around Canada to get people talking about mental health. As well, Clara has published a book OPEN HEART, OPEN MIND in which she tells her story.
I have been a consumer of mental health services for over thirty years. I am grateful beyond measure to have access to doctors, therapy, medications and programs. Mental illness, more specifically, major depressive disorder, ended my first career, but not my life! Hooooooooray!
Many people, including me, go on to live happy, healthy, productive, fulfilling lives.
As some of you know, I was a teacher by profession. I missed extended periods of time trying to get well. When I was able to return to the classroom, I embarked on a personal crusade to teach 9 and 10 year-olds about mental illness, with the emphasis on illness.
Mental illness is NOT a character flaw; it does NOT define who we are; it is NOT a death sentence; it does NOT diminish our self-worth; it does NOT mean we are unable to have a career; it does NOT mean we have to be hidden away in institutions; it does NOT mean we are violent and the list goes on.
Asthma, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and hepatitis are also illnesses. We may not be able to cure any of these illnesses but there are medications and lifestyle changes that allow an individual to lead a productive life. The same is true of mental illness.
It is true that I had to leave my teaching career and I was unable to work for a few years, but that was not the end of my story.
I went on to enjoy two more very rewarding, successful careers — first as a Child Development Worker where I worked with families of children born with special needs. What a wonderful fit! I could sit down in the home of a struggling and often discouraged parent and listen with great empathy. I could offer them help and hope. In a subsequent career as a Funeral Home Owner and Administrator, I could reach out to the grieving, wrap them in my arms, hold them as their body shook with sobs and let them know they were not alone. Eventually, I was able to put the loss of my teaching career behind me. It became a part of who I was, not who I am.
More than twenty years after I left teaching, I received a priceless, almost indescribable gift. As I checked my email one day, my eyes fell on the name of a former student, now an adult. The words the student had written leaped off the page. I would like to share a portion of the email with you. I have shortened it, changed some details and removed anything that would identify the student. You might want to grab a tissue.
“Dear Mrs. Clark:
Just over ten years ago, I wrote a paper that I meant to send to you. During an elementary education course, the professor asked us to write an essay about the teacher who had the most impact on our lives. I wrote that paper about you, as I had been a grade four student of yours many years ago. Where does time go? I had every intention of sending you a copy, but I never got around to it. I’m sorry! Strangely enough, I’m kind of glad I waited. I am seeing the beauty of your influence in a different light after walking through some difficult times in the past few years.
I was blessed with a lot of wonderful teachers, but you, Mrs. Clark, were my favourite! I felt loved, known and encouraged by you in a way that I remember as being special. You had a love for music that you shared with our class. I remember so clearly sitting on the carpet in that classroom, you playing your autoharp, and we would sing. We loved it! I can’t remember much about what you taught us academically that year, because my memories are full of the many class trips you took us on to numerous nursing homes, different floors of the hospital, and the psychiatric building at PRHC.
We marched in behind you and your autoharp, all 27 of us 9 year-olds, and sang our little hearts out to encourage the patients. We may have stood a little closer to each other during those times, tentative in the surroundings, but you had prepared us well for what we would see and hear as we interacted with people with mental health issues.
You see, in your great humility, you had shared your story with us. We knew you had struggled with depression, and that you very recently had spent time living in the very same psychiatric ward we were singing in. I remember you telling us how encouraged some of the other patients would be to see you, doing so well and back living your life.
We learned from you that very normal, wonderful people can struggle with depression. We also learned to look at mental illness in the same way that we looked at physical illness, as a sickness of the brain. It may have been a simplistic understanding, but regardless, you instilled in us a sense of compassion and respect for those struggling.
Some time ago, a person I love went through a significant time of depression that lasted a long time. You emphasized how important it is to approach those who are suffering with depression with a soft heart. Who knows the depths of influence that your story had? But I can tell you one thing I know for certain: the day I waited to be buzzed in to the psychiatric ward at the hospital to visit was not the first time I had walked through those doors. Of all the emotions I was working through in my heart waiting for those secured doors to open, anxiety about the place was not one of them. And for that, I thank you!
I now realize that I was blessed to be in your class. The lessons I learned far surpassed the classroom walls, and you left a lasting impact on my life.”
Without any warning, warm, sweet and salty tears of gratefulness streamed down my cheeks. I could not believe what I had read. Was it all a dream? As you can imagine, I was on cloud nine after I received that email. I reread it every day. It added a new spring to my step. It planted new seeds of hope in my heart. I wanted to shout from the mountaintops that my suffering was not in vain.
Forever cherished student of mine, you will never know how much your email meant to me. You were not late at all. The timing was just right. You see, I am well now and can appreciate each word you chose. My eyes well with tears even as I write this, but they are not tears of sadness or hopelessness. They are tears of jubilation and pride.
In 2018 society is more willing to dialogue about mental illness. We have made progress but prejudice exists in some circles. Occasionally, I hear people make very hurtful comments about the mentally ill. And just what do they say?
Mr. A is a few sandwiches short of a picnic.
Dr. B should just snap out of it.
Professor C is just feeling sorry for herself.
Rev. D acts schizo when there’s a full moon.
Miss E is just looking for attention.
Mrs. F should just suck it up.
Ms H takes her happy pills every morning.
Major I got her stupid cheque this month.
Judge J is as nutty as a fruitcake.
When I hear people say these things, I rub my hot little hands with glee and think, “You’ll be sorry!” I just sit and wait until they have finished incriminating themselves. Then I jump into the conversation and make them listen to my story. They cringe with embarrassment. Ouch!
As well, I take my morning medications in public. Eventually, someone will ask why I take them. They shake their heads in disbelief that I use psychiatric medications because I look so “normal,” whatever that is. That is exactly my point, those coping with mental illness are just that — normal, yes, normal in any language.