Jamie: Today is Bell Let’s Talk day. If you aren’t sure what this is, it’s a Canadian campaign to help reduce and hopefully eliminate the stigma associated with mental health, and to promote care, access to care, workplace health and research. My friend Whitney and I have been talking about this today. She is the other author of this post, I am just too computer illiterate to figure out how to add her as an author.
Whitney: Bell Let’s Talk Day is an initiative that’s raised over $80 million for mental health programs since 2010 and is making major moves to create a stigma-free society – so amazing! To learn more about how you can contribute, check out http://letstalk.bell.ca/en/
Whitney: Sometimes we surprise ourselves in the best possible way, and this morning was one of those times. When I realized that today was Bell Let’s Talk Day, I knew it was my chance to share my story. Jamie’s blog was the first platform that came to mind, since her transparency and bad-assery in general have been majorly inspiring to me lately. I messaged her a few hours ago to ask if she’d be willing to hold a space here for me, and for the memory of my dad, and she was really into it! Thank you Jamie!
Here are Bell Let’s Talk‘s initiatives:
In September 2010, Bell Let’s Talk began a new conversation about Canada’s mental health. At that time, most people were not talking about mental illness. But the numbers spoke volumes about the urgent need for action. Millions of Canadians, including leading personalities, engaged in an open discussion about mental illness, offering new ideas and hope for those who struggle, with numbers growing every year.
As a result, institutions and organizations large & small in every region received new funding for access, care and research, from Bell Let’s Talk and from governments and corporations that have joined the cause. Bell’s total donation to mental health programs now stands at $79,919,178.55 and we are well on our way to donating at least $100 million through 2020.
Jamie: As a healthcare professional, plus being someone who has worked through multiple major depressive episodes as well as a history of anxiety and insomnia, this campaign means a lot to me, and I like to learn why it means so much to others who have been affected in totally different ways than I have. This is how we can become more open and more supportive to those who need it, regardless of if it is someone with a mental illness or someone who is part of that person’s support network. Driving the conversation to help reduce stigma and promote awareness and understanding is such a crucial step towards change.
I remember a specific period of time when I was very depressed, and the person I was dating at the time would say things to me like, “I’m not going to hold your hand every day of your life,” “snap out of it!” or “stop being so miserable.” I have tears in my eyes now from writing that, because anyone who has ever suffered from a mood disorder knows full well that all you want is to go back to feeling like yourself again. Reactions like that from others come from lots of different places; misperceptions, fear, frustration, total lack of understanding, impatience, the list goes on and on..
Did you know that all of these and more are considered mental illness?
Earlier today, Whitney asked me if I was familiar with Bell Let’s Talk and I was happy that someone I know and love was talking about it! Whitney is going to share her experience with you here on the blog. This is us joining the conversation.
Whitney: The piece that you’re about to read below was my part of a Partnership Education Presentation (PEP) put on by the BC Schizophrenia Society in 2014. The BCSS is an organization that provides tools and support to people and families dealing with all types of mental illnesses, not Schizophrenia alone. I won’t get into detail here about all of the amazing free benefits they have to offer, but please click the link or get in touch with me if you’d like to know more.
My name is Whitney and I am here to talk to you about what it’s like to be a family member of someone with a mental illness. This is my first time speaking in public about this, so please bear with me.
I feel fortunate to be here to share my story, and hopefully to help break down some of the stigma surrounding mental illness. While preparing what I wanted to share with you, I was having a hard time getting started. I decided to start with the end in mind. I asked myself what I wanted you to take away from this short presentation today. These are the messages I came up with:
Mental illness is exactly that, an illness. Like so many illnesses, mental illness can be managed, but not cured. It is something that many families, including my own, will always struggle with. Dealing with mental illness is a marathon, not a sprint. If there is anything that I’ve learned over the course of this journey, it’s to celebrate each small step in the right direction, day by day, and week by week.
There are resources and there is hope. Prior to becoming involved with the BCSS, I was not so aware of where to turn for help for both my family member and myself. There are many advocates and organizations in our area who are eager to help those who need it. I can’t stress enough how much of a difference these people have made for me over the past couple of years.
10 years ago, my father was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. Because of his illness, he cycles through periods of extreme mania (highs) and extreme depression (lows). He must take a variety of medication each day. His medication, despite it’s side effects, keeps him stable, somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, and he is able to carry on with his every day life. He is a great dad, grandpa, brother, uncle and friend to the many that know him.
I was devastated when my dad was first diagnosed with Bipolar. I didn’t know anything about it, and didn’t understand how long it would last or how we could make it go away. His doctor explained it best to me, by explaining that my dad and his sickness are separate. My dad is not his sickness. When he is healthy and stable, he is my dad. When he is manic and acting out in an irrational, scary and unreasonable way, that is his sickness. This message has always stuck with me, and it’s something I must remind myself of often, even 10 years later.
Around 6 years ago, my parents divorced. While they are still on good terms with each other, it was hard on all of us, and it was especially hard on my dad. It was hard on me too, to know that he would now be living on his own. Who would make sure he was taking his medication? Who would make sure he was eating properly and looking after himself? Growing up, you never believe (or want to believe) your parents when they tell you that you’ll be looking after them one day. My sister and I had to step up and become my dad’s advocates.
Every two years or so, when he starts to feel he doesn’t need them anymore, my dad goes off his medication. From then on, it’s a slippery slope into a manic episode. He stops eating and sleeping through the night. He starts having coffee and smokes for every meal. It’s scary for us because he loses track of time, his concept of right and wrong, loses contact with us and acts without any consideration of the consequences. He often behaves in a way that puts himself in danger. He can sometimes scare people, and at times like these, he scares me. It’s an awful feeling to be scared of one of your own parents. I remind myself over and over – my dad is not his sickness. He just has a sickness.
Through working with his healthcare team, reintroducing his medication, and at times, hospitalization, he eventually slows down and becomes somewhat stable again. What usually follows is a period of depression. He goes from the highest high to the lowest low. I find trying to help my dad cope with his depression can be frustrating. It’s important to be patient, with him, and with myself. One part of me wants to call and invite him out everyday, urging him to get out for a walk around the block or a cup of coffee, but the other part tries not to become a nag. No one wants to be nagged everyday, especially when they aren’t feeling like themselves. It’s not easy to see someone so down, and to feel helpless. It is at down times like these when I really try to focus on any positive improvements. Sometimes just the fact that he returns a phone call or accepts a dinner invitation is enough reason to celebrate a nudge in the right direction.
I have learned a lot since my dad’s diagnosis. I have learned a lot about bipolar disorder, the treatment options available, and a lot about myself. I have learned what his warning signs look like – what to look for when I think he’s taking a turn for the worse. I have learned how to be strong when I have to be, and how to ask for help. I have learned that the ways that I deal with all of this are not always the same as my family members, and that’s OK. We all deal with things differently and what works for one of us may not work for another.
Up until last year, I felt stressed out a lot when it came to supporting my dad and being involved with his health care. No matter how much I did, I always felt like there was more that I should be doing. Then a friend saw an ad for a program called Strengthening Families Together, a 10 week program put on by BCSS for family members of those with mental illness. Even though putting myself out there and registering for the program was completely out of my comfort zone, I am so happy that I did. It was comforting to connect with other people in similar situations, and to share my own experiences in a place that felt safe and free of judgement. I learned about local resources and coping mechanisms that I hadn’t explored before. One of the most important things that I took away from the program was the importance of self care. None of us are able to help care for another person if we are not taking care of ourselves. For me, it was an eye opener and a chance to make some great connections in the mental health community that I would not have met otherwise. I started to look at helping my dad as more of a responsibility, and less of a burden.
The tricky thing about mental illness is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. There is not a treatment that will work for everyone. There is not a blanket cure. Finding the right combination of medications or the right program and combination of activities for someone can be a long and drawn out process. Many times it is trial and error. Many times what works for them changes over time. There are a lot of ups and downs. As a family member, it can seem like forever when you are waiting for things to take a turn for the better, but the good days are worth waiting for.
I know that there is only so much that I can do for my dad, and there are still many days that I wish I could do more. I am starting to get more involved within the mental health community. I am glad to have the opportunity to help dissolve the stigma around mental illness. I try and take good care of myself, so that I am able to take good care of my dad. Each day I count my blessings. I am lucky to have my dad in my life, lucky to have a lot of support, and lucky to have the opportunity to keep growing and learning how to cope with all of this. For me, one of the best ways of coping has always been sharing my story. Thank you for having me to share my story with you today.
Whitney: My dad passed away in October, 2015. I miss him every minute of every day, but talking about him keeps him close. He taught me so much, forced me to live outside of my comfort zone, and being there for him when he needed me helped me grow in ways I never thought I would. He definitely wasn’t perfect, but he was the perfect teacher in many ways. What I know for sure is this – we all have mental health, whether we are ill or not – and we need to talk about it to understand one another. If you or someone you love is struggling – you are not alone. If you think no one cares, or no one can relate to what you’re going through – you’re wrong. You might just not have found them yet. Keep going. Keep talking about it. I’ve become a huge mental health advocate and there are so many ways to get help. I’m here if you need someone to point you in the right direction. Jamie can put you in contact with me.
Jamie: Twenty percent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime, and basically everyone will experience in one way or another, indirectly, through someone in their family, a friend, in a relationship or a colleague. Like Whitney, I am am also an advocate for mental health. People do not want to be alone in navigating this kind of stuff. If you want to talk about it with me as a pharmacist and/or friend, acquaintance or stranger, please be in touch!
Whitney: When I first gave this speech, I was 28 years old, I was 8 months pregnant, I was struggling with my own self-care, and I honestly never thought I’d make it this far, especially without my dad by my side. He taught me about unconditional love, the strength of community, and that it’s OK to ask for help. He taught me the importance of showing your true colours, and that at the end of the day, everyone’s human. Thank God for that. Thanks Dad.