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Dear Duchess Kate, Let's Rewrite The Story On Kids' Mental Health

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duchess of cambridge mental health
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge visits the work of the Wave Project, an organization that uses surfing as a tool to reduce anxiety in children and improve their mental well-being on September 1, 2016. (Photo: Arthur Edwards - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Dear Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge,

Welcome to the sparkling coastal gem of British Columbia where most live in postcards and eat splendour for breakfast.

Like yourself, I'm just a girl born on the 9th day of a month in 1982, married to a prince (granted, yours is the real deal), and mother to a child born on July 25 (Ella arrived two years after Prince George joined the Royal Family). We relocated from Berlin to Vancouver where we live in our tiny, 670-square-foot, new-build of a palace nestled into the eclectic heritage site of Chinatown.

Our cozy home is a stone's throw away from the notorious Downtown Eastside junction where Hastings marries Main Street. The two blocks between them and us are too close for comfort for many who have yet to understand that on this planet we are an us. One neighbourhood, one community and, if anything, they arrived first.

Like yourself, I believe passionately in nourishing the roots of the mental health conversation with our children and applaud your efforts in lending your voice to the cause.

In many people's minds, my former pre-diagnosis mind included, mental illness afflicts those who have little, lack lots and live low on the social rungs of life's ladder, when truly it's the age-old chicken or egg discourse.*

I lift my fascinator in fascination of your efforts to advocate so publicly for the candid mental health conversation.

While my family harvests home-grown crop from our rooftop garden, we observe our less fortunate neighbours rummaging through farm-to-table trash bins for scraps and unlikely treasures. Car windows busted to retrieve a nickel toward affording the next fix, neon needle caps, the toxic syringes they seal, melting spoons and plastic tubes mixed with the indistinct shouting of half-clothed men and women yelling at figments of their drug-induced hallucinations or mental-health provoked delusions are our daily neighbourhood beat.

And yet we chose to move into their neighbourhood and raise our children here, well aware that it is not the warm and fuzzy environment in which Ella might set up their lemonade stand to vend produce from our plot.

As we stroll through Hastings on our daily outings, I am often gifted the exchange of stories shared by the grown children of Hastings.

I felt the neighbourhood's embrace soon after we took possession of our condo. Weeks away from giving birth, my jaw dropped the first time someone shouted "Mama on the block!" To my amazement the hash pipes, needles and crack spoons disappeared. "Thank You!," I smiled. "You're welcome, Mama. What are you having?" And so the conversations commenced.

(The "mama on the block" magic wand became "baby on the block," and still works like a charm.)

duchess of cambridge mental health
The Duchess of Cambridge has been involved in several campaigns to bring awareness to children's mental health. Along with other members of the Royal Family, she launched the Heads Together campaign to eliminate stigma on mental health on May 16, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Toby Melville)

"Beautiful feather!" I say to her as she peeks her hollow cheeks housing her toothless grin into Ella's carriage. She looks spent in a way that only substance abuse spends you. "It's for my baby. I don't see her, but I'm allowed to send her gifts and so I send her feathers hoping she'll one day fly home to me." I weep silently and my heart is broken while Ella and I cruise on. Around here she is one of few babies in a stroller, where four-wheeled carriages usually house people's prized possessions.

These are the untold tales of children who hoped to swing on a star and carry moonbeams home in a jar, while dreaming they'd one day be better off than [they] are. (Thank your for painting with words, James van Heusen.)

I see it as my great privilege to receive the occasional glimpse into the chapters of their stories. They are our community's invisible untouchables who most of us forget to see, greet, respect or acknowledge. But were they not all children who somewhere along the way lost their tight grip on a shooting star and crashed? I often imagine the conversation, the intervention that could have steered their stories toward happier endings. We all have our stories and here is a little bit about mine.

I was diagnosed and began treatment for reactive, turned major depression after holding my closest childhood friend's hand and heart through her three-year battle with cancer. After she flew away (we were 29 at the time) I downward spiraled into the darkness of 19-hour sleeps and shell-shocked emptiness until the net of welfare entangled me as I slipped through the cracks of life hoping I, too, could exit quietly into an easier world. One that didn't hurt, one that didn't demand and one that didn't require me to participate with the nothing I had to offer. My talent for guerrilla conversations, story telling and weaving networks didn't exactly predict a nine-to-five game plan at the time.

sadly the owl
A drawing from the children's book Sadly The Owl, written by the blogger to bring awareness to mental illness among children. (Image: Ashley O'Mara)

My own mental health journey involved climbing back into my mother's womb (luckily my parents have hearts the size of giants and a basement to build my nest in), mountain-peak highs and sunken-battleship lows. I was fortunate to receive the nurturing love of those who cared unconditionally, paired with professional help delivered by those trained to do so. As a result I was gifted my alternate happy ending.

Fast forward six years. I am fortunate to live deeply rooted, am married to my prince, have given birth to our princess and own a small Canadian children's book publishing house. My skills afford me to lace networks of illustrators and storytellers who create magical tales that spark discourse on topics ranging from immigration, bullying and most relevant to this story: mental health. Tadaahh! Turns out my strengths did inspire a career path.

My children's book, Sadly The Owl - An Untold Tale, is the story of a little line-dancing owl in red cowboy boots who wakes to a storm cloud above his head that makes him hide out in his nest.

I chapeau as I lift my fascinator in fascination of your efforts to advocate so publicly for the candid mental health conversation. It is one we need to encourage and one we owe a social responsibility to facilitate. We need to speak out so our children dare to do so sooner. Such is the only direction on the compass into the sunshine of a healthier and truly happier future.

Let's make a life of a difference; one child, one story and one hopeful ending at a time.

Here's to hoping we will one day sip lemonade bought from a stand on the corner where Hastings hugs Main Street.

Respectfully yours,

Linnie von Rekowsky

*Mental health is not the sole root of the narratives we see in our Downtown Eastside neighbourhood and merely one of many contributing factors though it plays a critical role in this particular story.

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