Let’s Keep Talking About Mental Health

Kristin Bower uploaded her first blog post at 8:47 p.m. on Dec. 28, 2011 during a depressive episode. She describes a war she’s been fighting for over 20 years. Bower ends this post, by pledging herself to advocacy in the name of others too afraid to ask for help.

“When I was first diagnosed with depression I decided that it was my secret and that I would keep it to myself – it was nobody’s business. Well, that lasted all of 24 hours, if that. Because that’s not who I am. I made a pledge to myself then, without quite realizing it, that I would be as open as I could be about this illness. Since then I have kept that pledge,” uploaded to Adventures of a Survivor on December 28, 2011.

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) only half of Canadians would tell friends or co-workers that they have a family member with a mental illness. Up to 30 per cent of Canadians will be diagnosed with mental illness in their lifetime, but despite the massive improvements that have been made in mental health awareness over the past decade, suicide is still the number one killer of both men and women from adolescents to middle age.

Recently, Bell launched their fifth annual mental health awareness campaign, known as Bell: Let’s Talk. On Jan. 28, 2015, for every text message, wireless and long distance call made by Bell Canada customers, every tweet using #BellLetsTalk, and every Facebook share of the Bell Let’s Talk Day cover image, Bell donated 5 cents to Canadian mental health programs. The event raised over $6 million for mental health across Canada. The nation contributed 122 150 772 tweets, texts, calls and shares. For one week this year, mental health was on everyone’s mind.

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“I’m lucky,” says Bower, “I’ve got a very supportive family. I’ve never been suicidal, but I’ve been a step away from it. For some people who don’t have that, it can be the difference between life and death.” She describes Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign as the largest platform mental health has ever received, and thinks Canadian athlete Clara Hughes is the ideal face for this movement.

“She challenges people’s beliefs about who is mentally ill.” Bower stresses that even those at the top of their game can be struggling in silence. When asked by director Larry Weinstein to film a documentary promoting the campaign, Hughes insisted, “I don’t want this to be a film about me.” Hughes wanted the film, eventually entitled “Clara’s Big Ride,” to feature real people who were finally ready to talk.

“This is something that’s really moving. People who tell their stories on camera had suffered with life and death issues. They exposed themselves,” says Weinstein as he describes the characters in the film. “These are the people that are going to change things.”

Hughes is a six-time Olympic medalist and the only athlete in history to medal in both the summer winter and Olympic Games. Hughes has been a constant in sports media for her success in speed-skating and cycling competitions since she won her first silver medal in 1989 at the National Championships. Last year, Hughes completed a 110-day cycling trip across Canada. She travelled over 11,000 kilometres paid over 95 community visits and attended more than 200 events, all because she too has suffered from depression.

Weinstein says that by observing Hughes for 110 days, he’s been introduced to a huge community that he never accessed before. “If I look at my own film cynically,” explains Weinstein, “I could say it doesn’t really do the ride justice, it doesn’t do Clara’s speeches justice and it does not do those individuals that we filmed justice. However, if you look at it as one piece it can be an alarm, a wake-up call.”

“Clara’s Big Ride” was produced to reach out to youth struggling with mental illness, hoping to inspire tomorrow’s advocates. Weinstein recalls conducting interviews for the film. He describes the subjects as young, intelligent, articulate people, and marvels that those same people suffered from anxiety, depression and schizophrenia.

In a post uploaded on Nov. 28, 2013, Bower agrees that mental illness is more common among Canadians than many believe it to be.

“A friend shared with me recently that she has just been diagnosed with anxiety. So, let’s see – carry the three, multiply by…Oh, forget it. I give up. This club just keeps growing. Mental illness is, without doubt, the disease of our time,” posted on Adventures of a Survivor on Nov. 28, 2013.

Though members of the mental health community believe Bell: Let’s Talk has done wonders in starting the conversation, this issue is so layered and diverse that it needs more than seven days. Many agree that every day, contemporary media leaves several factors unaddressed. American advocates for mental wellness, Honora Rose and Wendy Williamson observe that Canada is on the right track.

“When I heard about Bell: Let’s Talk I thought to myself, when is it going to be an American company that stands up and does this? I look at Canada as a very progressive country with mental illness,” says Williamson.

Rose and Williamson are the joint authors of “Two Bipolar Chicks’ Guide to Survival: Tips for Living with Bipolar Disorder, which they describe as the regular-people’s guide, or “cliff notes,” to bipolar disorder. These two women have had vastly different experiences, starting with Williamson’s early diagnosis just after her college graduation versus Rose’s diagnosis at the age of 35. They published their joint-memoir in April of 2014, and are considering writing a second edition. In addition to bipolar disorder, both Rose and Williamson have dealt with substance abuse and depression.

Rose was diagnosed in 2005. Because of heavy drinking, Rose found herself in the hospital eight times between 2005 and 2010. “It wasn’t until 2010, when I got sober, that everything changed for me,” she emphasizes.

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According to “Mindset: Reporting on Mental Illness,” a manual for journalists writing about mental illness, mental illness and addiction often co-exist. Psychiatry treats addiction as a mental disorder on its own, but up to 80 per cent of people diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or antisocial personality also have an addiction problem.

Williamson, said in an interview with The Fix that she believes her bipolar disorder was drug induced, having used marijuana and cocaine heavily until 1997. She has also abstained from any other drugs or alcohol for the past 11 years. “[Addiction] is really such a huge concern in our community, until you treat the addiction, there’s really very little chance of having real success treating the illness.”

The question of whether substance abuse, so often suffered in conjunction with mental illness, should receive coverage in campaigns such as Bell: Let’s Talk, has also been raised by many. Some international representatives for alcoholism and addiction have taken a different approach.

“I’ve analyzed the points at which people find it difficult not to drink,” says founder and CEO of Hello Sunday Morning, Chris Raine. “Psychologically, you could split that into depression, anxiety and the emotional pressure people feel.”

Through Hello Sunday Morning, an online alcohol abstinence program, Raine wants to change the way people feel about substances while specifically tackling the issue of alcohol abuse. He founded Hello Sunday Morning, based out of Sydney, Australia, as a response to his own drinking in 2010. This organization supports people to take a break from alcohol.

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“Drinking was a huge part of my family’s life, my career, and I was starting to rely on it to de-stress after work. I began to wonder, would I be like this the rest of my life?” Raine took a year off drinking to reflect on his relationship with alcohol, and describes the positive change that followed. “Some of my friendships changed in a positive way. Five of my friends also decided to go three months without drinking too, and really live for that period of time without alcohol.”

The program offered by Hello Sunday Morning where participants sign up to abstain from alcohol from three or 12 months, set goals to achieve during that time and blog about their ups and downs throughout the process. ‘When you remove alcohol from your life, there’s a clarity that’s difficult to deal with.” Hello Sunday Morning has participants in Australia, the UK, New Zealand and Canada. According to Raine, there are approximately 38 000 people worldwide and 4300 Canadians already enrolled in the program.

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The Canadian effort to reduce stigma has made huge leaps in the past few years. Bell: Let’s Talk is among the actors responsible for this, along with online advocates like Kristin Bower, and external influences like the self-proclaimed Two Bipolar Chicks or Hello Sunday Morning. Role models like Clara Hughes and members of the creative industry like Larry Weinstein are working together to give mental illness a wider audience. However, the obstacle lies not in starting the conversation, but in continuing it. It’s imperative that Canadians keep talking about mental illness, because a good start is just that. A start.

On Adventures of a Survivor, Bower has discussed a wide variety of illnesses including depression, anxiety and eating disorders such as bulimia. As someone living with mental illness, she also blogs often about where and when to seek help. On Sept. 25, 2014 at 8:47 p.m., Bower uploaded a post entitled “I Will Breathe”, but this one reads a little differently than the others. In this post she relives an anxiety attack brought on by a fire drill at work that day.

“It’s too loud. Too loud. TOO. LOUD. Can’t breathe. My heart is racing, racing, racing. I can’t catch my breath. People – there are too many, too loud, too close. I can’t breathe. Get away. I have to get away. Move. Quiet. Air. Tears pricking at my eyes. I must get away. I must be alone. I am alone. Nobody understands”.

Uploaded to Adventures of a Survivor on Sept. 25, 2014 at 8:47 p.m.

  • Maria

    Excellent article, well written and informative. A fresh perspective on a really tough issue. It’s great that the writer was able to access sources around the world to bring different viewpoints to this critical conversation. Thank you Jessica…we will definitely KEEP TALKING about Mental Health! I have shared this within my organization as well!

  • Deborah

    Thanks for sharing these insights on Mental Health with us Jessica through your article. I plan to share this with my family and friends. Keep up the great work!
    Deborah