Speak up, reach out: community mental health presentation held at Seaway

IROQUOIS – “Mental illness knows no boundaries. Let’s all change the way we think. And then lead those changes in our community by reaching out to help those in need.”

These were key themes from the Canadian Mental Health Association’s open presentation held at Seaway District High School on Monday, January 15, in the school cafeteria. Nearly 60 people, of all ages and backgrounds, attended the event which was sponsored in partnership with Ontario Power Generation.

The presentation was led by Angele D’Alessio, mental health promoter with the CMHA. Displays were set up in the cafeteria with literature and contact information for the visitors.

D’Alessio was joined by four volunteer speakers, all of whom have struggled with mental illnesses, and were willing to share their stories, and to put a human face to the ongoing stigma attached to mental illness.

Seaway principal Don Lewis welcomed everyone. Matthew Mulvihill of Ontario Power Generation, told the crowd that the OPG, by sponsoring the CMHA presentation was “giving back to the community. I’m here to listen and to learn too.”

D’Alessio began by outlining some of the myths and facts that surround mental illness.

“We deliberately held this presentation on the third Monday of January, the so-called Blue Monday, described in the Media as the ‘most depressing’ day of the year. That is a myth. Blue Monday was actually created on Facebook to boost winter travel sales. There is no day of the year which somehow “triggers” mental illness. Mental health issues occur year round.”

She projected on screen current definitions of what constitutes mental illness and what constitutes mental wellness, opening them up for discussion.

“Mental illness is real. Just because you can’t see it, like a broken leg, does not mean it isn’t real. We’re quick to support physical illnesses, but when it is a mental illness, people often pull away.”

She pointed out that some 6 million people in Canada have experienced some form of mental illness, yet currently less than five per cent of medical funding goes to treat mental illness.

However, there are efforts in the province and across Canada to build public awareness of mental health issues and to encourage people to reach out.

She cited Bell: Let’s Talk due to be held on January 31, where five cents of every call, tweet, text, snapshot that is shared goes to mental health. Last year this event raised $6.5 million.

Celebrities like Clara Hughes and Howie Mandel (“If we took care of our mental health like we do our dental health, we’d all be okay!”) have done a great deal to bring mental health to the forefront.

She pointed out that many schools now have mental health walls which list all the resources, including dialling 211, that are available when kids need help.

Depression is probably the most common form of mental illness out of some 300 diagnosed and on the books mental illnesses. Yet it is often the least understood, and most readily dismissed, by the general public of all the mental disorders. “Depression,” D’Alessio said, “is not a ‘vacation’ indulged in by slackers.”

Stephen, a 68 year old volunteer speaker, made that abundantly clear.

“I was a driven businessman, a guy working 18 hours a day running three companies, utterly obsessed with making money. My problems with depression had started years earlier, and I had stress attacks. But I wouldn’t let anyone in, was unapproachable. And even though all the signs of depression were there, it wasn’t until I crashed and tried to kill myself that I finally got the help I needed.”

Ashley is barely out of high school, yet she has attempted suicide three times. Her mental illnesses appeared before she was eight years old. By the time she got to grade 10, she was suffering from extreme Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression.

Like Stephen, she let no one in. “I learned to fake a smile, to hide behind “okays” and “I’m fines.” I was hearing voices and self mutilating, but I was hiding my secret identity behind all those smiles.” Ashley did not trust anyone, denying what was going on to her friends. A phone call to her mother by her school principal, who suspected something, finally started her on the road to help, although she too, like Stephen, crashed first, and nearly died through suicide.

At 16, Eric was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. He has been hospitalized 13 times. Life for him was a constant roller coaster of emotions. “On a high, I was not sleeping, my thoughts constantly raced, and I was often totally delusional. On a low, it was like living in a dark hole, in a state of deep depression where I regularly contemplated suicide. I was driving my family insane with my behaviour,” he said, with an ironic smile.

Pierre, a college grad, has agoraphobia and schizo-depression. “Two years ago, I could not have been in this room, or looked at you or spoken to you,” he told the listeners. “I didn’t leave my home for months at a time. I turned to cannabis and alcohol and they did nothing. I could not cope at all, and I ended up being hospitalized.” He spoke of how difficult it was, and is, for him to cope, how he must constantly focus his thoughts, still his thoughts, how yoga and meditation and medication in combination keep him on a fairly even keel.

“It hard to describe for you what it’s like,” Pierre, who often finds expression through poetry, said. “I don’t project into the future, or live in the past. I have to find the individual moment and appreciate it.”

One thing that all four speakers emphasized is that a person suffering from mental disorders often finds it next to impossible to “self diagnose,” to realize that he/she needs help. It really takes someone outside of them, a friend, or family member, to take note, to observe that something is going on and to offer help.

“If you see someone acting strange, please talk to them. You don’t have to solve their problems,” Eric said. “Just help them to find help.”

“Our current mental health system tends to be re-active, not pro-active,” Angele D’Alessio said. “We must encourage people with mental issues to open up, to talk about the problem, to tell the truth. Then we all have to help.”

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