How would you summarize your childhood memories?

Growing up always felt easy to me, or at least I had convinced myself of that. I always managed to define myself by the “on paper” version of my life. I come from a great family, always had friends, was given the opportunity to experience the things I wanted to try, and when I found my passions I was gratefully able to pursue them. Anything that was ever “wrong” was easily brushed aside with my belief that I was so lucky, so fortunate; ‘How could I complain when others suffered so greatly, had such tragic lives?’

When did sports become a part of your life?

At a young age, I knew my life would always be guided by sport. We are all gifted with a natural ability for something. For some, their singing stops others mid-stride; some look at a math equation with Goodwill Hunting-like ease. For me, it’s always been sport. The field has never mattered, nor the equipment needed. Sports just make sense to me; they helped to define me.

By the time I was seven, baseball, tennis and hockey had each become constant in my life, and at eight years old, I was asked by my tennis coach to move to Toronto in order to focus on hitting the circuit by my early teens.

When did you first experience any degree of mental health struggles?

I’m not sure. I wish I had made any other decision, but at eight there was a terrified version of myself that wasn’t ready to be away from my family, my home. I do recall a scared little girl who was guiding me by fear: fear of death, fear of being alone, fear of what others saw in me, fear of the loneliness and confusion that consumed me behind closed doors. As I look back, this was a point in my life where I was struggling with my mental health and happiness, but no one knew about it other than me.

How did you cope with these early mental health struggles?

Making the decision on tennis narrowed to hockey. I moved on to become “the” goalie. I was going to be the best, I was going to fill my closets with red and white jerseys, my name displayed proudly on the back. It wasn’t even an option yet, but I was determined to go to the Olympics. To hide from my daily fears and struggles, I focused my energy on hockey.

On the surface, as far as anybody else was concerned, I was on my way to my Olympic dream. I only allowed in a few close friends who were aware of my daily torment. For the rest of the world, I performed as the goalie, the only female in a male world, making my way through to Midget AAA with the Grey Bruce Highlanders. Hockey was the part of my world that just made sense – a world that existed in an eight-foot crease where I was untouchable. My internal fears faded, and my thoughts were quiet for those two hours on the ice.

By age 16, outside of hockey, how was your day-to-day life?

Beyond the crease, I was lost, confused. I couldn’t find words, adjectives that would do justice to my story. To onlookers who did not know me closely I appeared to be the pinnacle of confidence.

The truth was, I was nobody’s best friend and everybody’s acquaintance. I was included in everyone’s plans, invited to all social outings; however, never the life of the party. My name never came up in stories about the weekend’s events. I floated from group to group, connecting with everyone, though really disconnected from them all.

I survived high school being the goalie, coveted by coaches, respected by teammates, considered a great friend, a loved daughter and sister, while my true feelings and fear were invisible to the majority. I offered a version of myself that filled a need for everybody around me.

I was drawn to my peers’ personal tragedies, always inserting myself in others’ heartbreak. I was committed to get others through their crises. Today, I suspect I was keen to help others in hopes of learning how to lessen my own pain.

I wanted so badly what my friends had, what my teammates and my peers seemed to have, while – at best – most days I was able to just breathe. I was suffering in silence with no clarity on why, what I could do, or how to live my life without fear.

(Part two will be published on Wednesday.)

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

This article supports The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell’s Employee Recommended Workplace Award. This award recognizes employers who have the healthiest, most engaged and most productive employees. It promotes a two-way accountability model where an employer can support employees to have a positive workplace experience. Companies can register for the 2019 award now at


Don’t Be Ashamed of Me

Anger is not a place I like to write from. I despise this state, the energy it takes. I understand the value of counting to 10, of being mindful and rational. I understand the politics and tact that lace diplomacy. I have made a life out of being polite. But I can’t be polite about this. I can’t, having just experienced what I have, sit here silently shaking my head and ignoring things. Right now, I am ashamed. I am heartbroken. I am absolutely appalled and silence can’t be my answer.

Working in mental health, if that is what it is indeed called, to travel around, sharing my story and experience with mental illness, has been and is, one of the most incredible journeys of my life. I have come across so many incredible people, worked and spoken along side of them, trying to be a part of the change. Trying to help, to make some sort of difference in this crisis that we are in, that one in five Canadians are living through. I have politely sat by, answered when called upon, spoken when prompted, and shared the best I can, a story that I pray can offer even one person a different path in life, one different than the one that cost me so much of what I thought my life would be.

What you need to know. In Ontario, school boards have been allocated the funds and resources to create a mental health strategy, an opportunity to develop guidelines for dealing with mental health in their schools. I know this is the simplistic definition, but you get the point. There is money and it’s supposed to be used to address mental health in schools. Although it’s likely not enough money or resources, it’s a beginning. And it’s an opportunity that needs to be taken full advantage of.

In my mind, this strategy needs to be factual and relatable. It should teach about mental illness, not be afraid of it. Mental illness is indeed a part of mental health that needs to be understood. It should educate students, teachers and parents about the signs and symptoms around disorders. It should discuss all of the factors that affect mental health and the differences between normal and abnormal responses to situations. It should address stigma and acceptance. It should encourage support and communication around mental health. It should allow for a safe environment, one that provides guidance and training within the schools to allow for “first line” crisis response. And one that promotes asking for help. It should help bridge the gap that exists between asking for help and finding it. It needs to educate on the resources available to those dealing with mental illness, or supporting somebody who is. It needs to incorporate an approach of wellness and prevention, and lend itself to helping develop positive coping skills. We finally have a chance to start getting it right, wasting that opportunity is not an option.

Tonight, I sat in on a presentation given to parents in one of the larger school boards in Ontario. It was a presentation on mental health; one that I hoped would be bold and real. It didn’t need to be dramatic, or even on par with a made for TV movie, but at least real! Somebody who, in all likelihood, had all the right motives and all of the best intentions shared it quite eloquently.

I expected to hear the statistics around mental health; I know stats are boring but necessary in order for us to understand the size of this problem. I wanted to hear about how this school board, in the early stages of developing their strategy, planned on making mental health a focus. I wanted to learn about how they would get their students involved. I wanted to know how this mental health discussion would address the parents of kids who may be struggling. I wanted to hear a talk about the options for help, guidance around resources, just anything that would actually help. I expected to learn of the interactions that would occur between schools and parents should a need arise. I know this school has dealt with suicide. I know there are issues far beyond practicing stress management and expectation setting. And I know that I just watched what would likely be the only “mental health” presentation that will be had this year.

I left angry! I am angry! Instead of finally embracing the opportunity to have an open and educated discussion around mental health, I watched this polite presentation that kind of touched on things like the possibility that being anxious would effect a student’s ability to live up to their potential! Or that mental health is important to ensure students reach their highest level of success. I watched conversations around study habits and getting students to apply themselves.

I know there are so many parents who are still embarrassed to admit that they have a child who struggles with mental health, and as appalling as that fact is, I also know that in that room tonight, we succeeded in nothing other than perpetuating the stigma and encouraging those very parents who have kids in crisis to continue hiding.

“We” — that is why I am ashamed. I sat there, silent, without speaking, politely accepting this presentation as a “good try.” It wasn’t a good try. It was horrible. It was wrong. It was misinformation. I challenge anybody who thinks that mental health has to be quietly and diplomatically approached. Silence is part of the reason suicide has become a leading cause of death in Canada. Pretending that we have to sugarcoat our conversations is the problem. And encouraging anybody, parent, teacher, employer, student, or family member to generalize mental health, as only the “positive” discussions, is a complete failure to those who actually need this to be a safe conversation.

You cannot understand what it is to be healthy unless you know what it is to not be sick. You know you don’t have a cold because you know that if you did, your throat would be sore, you may have a cough and your nose would be runny. The education has to be all encompassing. I don’t “suffer from mental health”, I live with mental illness. And I know that the best way to stay in recovery is to manage my mental health!

I learned these things because I was forced to educate myself. I know that feeling hopeless is a sign of my depression. I know that the feeling in my chest, the one that used to send me to the ER every week (convinced I was having a heart attack), is my anxiety, a panic attack, and I know how to manage it. I know it’s silly that I sometimes pump my gas to a multiple of three, but I also forgive myself, because I have OCD. And I know that for the better part of five years, I couldn’t leave my apartment without fear because all of these things caused my agoraphobia. But most importantly, I know I am in recovery! I know that these are things I will always live with, and that’s OK. I know that nobody saw it coming. Not me. Not my parents. Not my teachers. Not Team Canada.

Now, most days, I am so happy, and absolutely in love with life! And I do not understand why it’s not OK to be honest about people like me.

How I Navigated My Mental Illness on and Off the Ice

It took me almost 5 years to learn that I knew nothing about mental illness, and I had no idea where to go for help. It all felt pointless, there was no “reason” left. At that moment I knew I had a choice to make — I could accept there was no point, or I could find a way to make a point. I knew there had to be more; more help, more resources, more support — I just had to find it.

I have tried a hundred times to describe what “getting sick” means to me. I can pull on science, data, facts, and symptoms. I can tell you all about my anxiety, depression, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and agoraphobia. I can rip myself open and show you the scars of a broken heart and dreams lost. I can recount horror stories and failures, shortcomings, and embarrassments. Most importantly, what I hope I can do is help you to understand what it is to “survive” a little better. To find that moment when you know you will triumph. There was a time I didn’t believe it was possible. Then I learned to accept fate, to understand there is a better way, a new path.

I remember as a kid, thinking I had it all figured out. I had a great family, friends, and I was going to play for Team Canada. It was simple. I’d spend every day out on the street playing road hockey, every weekend at tournaments, and every moment in between playing any sport I could fit into my schedule. But hockey always had my heart.

Around the time I was in Grade 11, my mom ran for Member of the Provincial Parliament in our area and was elected under the Conservative government. I learned in a hurry what it meant to be a politician’s daughter in a small town and decided that moving to the anonymity of Toronto to graduate was in my best interest. It was a big year for me: I had made the transition from boys Midget AAA to women’s hockey, I’d been named to Team Ontario for the Canada Games, I was carded as a Development player with Team Canada, and I was set to graduate high school with scholarship offers to several Universities and Colleges. Life was good, great even.

I graduated from Havergal College in 1998. I was playing in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (then National Women’s Hockey League) and nothing could stop me, or so I thought. Months later, a car accident left me with a broken vertebra. If there was ever a good time to break one’s back, this was it for me. I had just finished my hockey season and according to my therapists, I had just enough time to get healthy again before my next Team Canada tryout. So, I worked myself harder than even I knew possible. I still had a month before camp and I was good to go, and then everything changed.

I started to feel off. I never knew how to explain it in the beginning. It started in my chest; my heart would skip beats and beat so hard I thought it would explode. My throat would feel like it was closing; I couldn’t get a breath in, and swallowing felt impossible. I’d get pains in my stomach and chest. My arms would tingle and go numb. My head, I’d get this pressure and feel like I was going to faint. So, I did what any normal person would do, and I went to my doctor, and my doctor did what every normal doctor did and sent me to five other doctors.

I had a specialist for everything, they ran every test they could come up with and every one of them told me I was fine. Problem was, I felt so far from fine. My tryouts were weeks away and I couldn’t even remember how to breathe.

I managed to get out to tryouts in Calgary in the following weeks, but it only took me a day to realize I couldn’t do it. I sat with the coaches of Team Canada and explained that I didn’t know what was wrong, but that I needed help. They asked me in that moment if it would help to know I had made the team — they wanted me to play for Team Canada. It is one of the most memorable moments in my life, but I wish I could forget. The answer was no, I had to leave; I had to figure out how to live again.

It took me almost five years to learn that I knew nothing about mental illness, and I had no idea where to go for help. It all felt pointless, there was no “reason” left. At that moment I knew I had a choice to make — I could accept there was no point, or I could find a way to make a point. I knew there had to be more; more help, more resources, more support — I just had to find it.

It took me a long time to get to a point of recovery. This is something I will never be complacent with. I respect my Mental Health and focus on being kind to myself in moments of doubt. I knew hopeless for a long time, and it’s not a place I will ever allow myself to exist again.

A couple of weeks ago, at the RBC Run for the Kids, I stood at the starting line with tears rolling down my cheeks as I remembered how many times, I felt like tomorrow wasn’t coming. I watched thousands standing together for one cause, to support Sunnybrook’s Family Navigation Project. I remembered wondering if I could ever learn how to live with a diagnosis that had felt more like a sentence for so many years.

The Family Navigation Project, which currently serves the GTA with hopes of provincial expansion, works to help families find their way through the mental health system. It took me far too long to navigate my way through what was then, a complicated and overloaded system. And unfortunately, it has not become any easier. It is with the help of this program that families of struggling youth will be able to find the right help at the right time, while saving lives in the process.

I spend a lot of time now speaking to youth, parents, and teachers about my journey and how I’ve come to live in recovery. The one question that has always left me speechless has been “where do I go for help?”. I am so grateful that we are finally getting to a place where this question no longer must go unanswered.