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.