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Let's Keep Talking about Mental Health

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February 12 was Bell Let's Talk day. A day to talk about mental illness. A day to combat stigma. A day to say we need to allocate way more than 5 per cent of our heath spending dollars on a problem that affects over 20 per cent of the population. A day to say it's time to figure out how Canada might be able to create a true mental health care system, as opposed to the hodgepodge set of disjointed, inaccessible and underfunded services we currently have.

Most importantly, Let's Talk is a day to remind ourselves that to truly combat stigma -- and to truly to understand more about mental health and illness -- we need to listen and learn from the voices of those who have firsthand knowledge, who have lived experience, who therefore know what they are talking about.

My friend Dawn is one of those people. Dawn is and has always been a shining light of personality; inspiring in her enthusiasm, contagiously sweet and kind, generous beyond words, and gorgeous to boot. Always popular, always well liked, and always competent and capable in anything she sets her mind to. She is the kind of person you would never in a million years guess lived with severe depression most of her life. She is the type of person you would never imagine once spent three months in a psychiatric hospital, desperately sick, full of hopelessness, gripped by fear and despair, totally incapacitated.

That was 15 years ago. My friend has come a long way since those dark days in hospital. Some may think she is one of the lucky ones, to live so well in recovery. And while I know Dawn feels blessed -- she has an amazing husband, wonderful children and grandchildren, a meaningful career, and a support network of friends and professionals she trusts completely -- she will also tell you she has worked her ass off to get and stay healthy. She still does.

Mental health, she will tell you, is not something to be taken for granted. Ever. By anyone. Achieving and maintaining mental well being, she will tell you, means taking full responsibility for your life and everything in it, no matter what has happened to you. It means getting help from a trained professionals, taking medication when required, and changing your life style.

But how?

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The Toll Of Mental Illness In Canada
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Because we seem to know so little about what mental wellness and recovery really means, I asked my friend if she would share her story, highlighting the things that have been particularly important for her over the years to getting and staying mentally well. What follows are her words, exactly as written.

It is a miracle that I am alive today and have such a beautiful, healthy and joyful life. My relationship with depression started at the age of three, even though I didn't know what to call it then. I never felt well as a child. I had chronic ear infections, tummy aches, a sleep disorder, and severe anxiety. By the time I was 12, when my parents were going through an ugly divorce, depression hit hard. I battled all through junior high and high school just to get out of bed every day and function. The fact that I was physically active, involved in dance and other sports, literally saved my life.

My mom was a single parent who did everything in her means to help me. She was supportive and loving, but I didn't want to burden her so I tried my best to soldier on. What a mistake that was! I thought if I just tried hard enough I could heal the devastating depression on my own. I had no idea I was suffering from a potentially deadly illness. Neither did my mother.

After graduating from high school, I went overseas to work and travel the world. I was date raped at the age of 19. It was then that the depression took over to the point that I could no longer function. I had to go home. I had to get help. With the help of antidepressants and psychotherapy I was able to regain my functioning and begin University.

At University, I had a full course load, lived on my own, and worked part-time to pay my bills. The stress was tremendous and the "ugly face of depression" crept in again. I returned to counselling and started to work through some painful issues of my past. By divine grace, I finished University. I thought the worst was behind me.

Feeling stronger and healthier I once again decided to venture overseas to work as a teacher. I enjoyed one year in Japan, but after a painful break-up and a bad infection resulting in sepsis, the downhill spiral started again. Too stubborn to go home, I pushed on, trying to will my way back to health. Finally, the depression won and I was face down in the mud once again.

I never tried to kill myself but I knew that if I did not surrender to the fact that I was very sick and if I did not seek help yet again I would not survive. I cared too much about myself and the people in my life; I made a decision that I would do whatever it took to heal myself once and for all...

The only thing I could think to do was to check myself into the hospital.

I decided I would stay until I got some answers about why I suffered with devastating depression, and how to get better. That was when I met an incredible psychiatrist named Dr. Douglas Spaner, who took me under his wing and brought me back from hell.

Dr. Spaner, with the help of many caring nurses, an outstanding recreational therapist and a supportive psychologist helped me create a plan of action, which focused on every aspect of my life: physical, social, mental, and spiritual. Despite amazing care, the hospital environment was not at all conducive to healing for me. I felt like I had leprosy. I felt tremendous shame for being in the state I was. I resisted my illness with vigour.

Finally, I learned to accept what was happening to me. It was only then that I started to make true progress. After three months of intensive therapy I left the hospital and began the journey of rebuilding my life.

This is when the hardest work began...

The next step of my journey began when I met a phenomenal psychologist named Joanna Shandro who taught me how to reduce my stress, create healthy boundaries, heal childhood wounds that kept resurfacing, and manage my mental health on a daily basis. Her expertise, love, care and compassion were integral for me to move from surviving to thriving.

Joanna taught me that if I wanted to fully recover from mental illness I would have to take full responsibility for every aspect of my life and would have to change my lifestyle. Without Joanna's nurturing care I know I would have relapsed and ended back in hospital. I will be forever grateful to her for helping me recreate my life.

In 2000, I met my soul mate. I was so afraid that no one would love me if they knew my ugly secret. Yet, my now-husband loved me more because of what I had overcome. He is my rock and greatest support system. I married him in 2003, gained two fabulous stepsons, and gave birth to my own son in 2004.

Life was wonderful! All my dreams were coming true...

Yet, it was not without challenges. Life keeps pushing us, demanding more, testing our mental health. My son had sleep issues and I felt myself slipping once again. Sleep deprivation is one of the main triggers for people who suffer from a mood disorder. I was determined that I would not let myself fall into despair again, I had too many people counting on me. This time I was going to be proactive. So I continued to see Joanna and Dr. Spaner for support. I had gone off medication in order to get pregnant. I decided to do some research to see if there were any other options besides medication. Medication helped saved my life many times in the past but my intuition told me that there were other options to explore.

I came across a supplement called EMPowerplus, a nutritional supplement by a company called Truehope. It had helped a woman named Autumn Stringam and I was so inspired by her book, A Promise of Hope, I took a leap of faith under the guidance of my doctor and I tried it. It worked wonders for me and allowed me to better deal with the stresses of being a new mother.

Then, at age three, my son developed generalized epilepsy and had 46 grand mal seizures in six months. Our lives spiralled into trauma. I was dealing with the worst stress I had ever faced and stress can be lethal for a person predisposed to depression. I continued with the EMPowerplus, and it continued to help me cope through this difficult time. My son's illness turned out to be a gift in disguise, taking me further into my own healing.

A few years ago, I was given a life-changing book called The Ultramind Solution by Mark Hyman, MD. I learned how imbalances in the body can create imbalances in the brain. Food sensitivities, stress, toxins in food and the environment were also factors in my illness. This learning allowed me to start viewing my illness though a different lens, realizing that I had no reason to feel any shame. As they say, 'knowledge is power.' It was with this new knowledge about imbalances in my body and life that I started to see more avenues for healing and wellness.

After reading this book, I was referred to a doctor who practices functional medicine. He helped uncover further clues as to the roots of my son's epilepsy and my own mood disorder. We both had dairy and gluten allergies along with many other food sensitivities. We were both highly lacking in vitamin B12 and Omega 3s. We both had high yeast.

By eliminating the foods that irritated us, adding supplements and probiotics, my son and I both improved dramatically. I was also diagnosed with having a hypothyroid, which I learned can bring on depressive symptoms. For me, hormonal imbalances were yet another key factor in understanding and managing my mental health. The more my hormones are in balance, the better I feel.

Then, in 2010, another devastating event occurred. One of my best friends, who also suffered from a mental Illness, took her life. I was overcome by grief and guilt. Why had I survived when she did not? What more could we have done to help her?

It was during this period that I met another amazing woman named Mandy Trapp. Mandy is a vedic master, yoga and meditation teacher. There is a saying, 'when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.' Mandy has became one of my greatest teachers. She introduced me to the power of yoga and meditation to heal the body, mind, heart and soul. Her support has been monumental in helping me find new ways to deal with the stresses of raising a son with special needs, to cope with the loss of my dear friend, and how to keep myself mentally and physically healthy. Without her help I'm sure I would have fallen back into depression once again.

I continue to work on my mental health daily. I believe in a Higher Power, I practice gratitude, I eat foods that are good for my body, I exercise daily, I meditate and practice yoga daily, I try to get lots of sleep, I spend time in nature as much as possible, I do not drink alcohol or smoke any more, I drink lots of water, I surround myself with nurturing and loving people, and I ask for help when I need it. I am trying everyday to take 100 per cent responsibility for my life. I have a choice everyday to create wellness in my life.

With the support my mental health team -- my doctors, my psychologist, my yoga and meditation teacher -- as well as my loving family and amazing friends who have supported me every step of the way, I have been able to build an outstanding life. They believed in me when I no longer believed in myself. Without their support, my recovery would not have happened. I am eternally grateful to them all.

With mental health there are no silver bullets or quick fixes. It is a journey just like life itself.

I believe we need to have a serious conversation about how to provide better mental health care in Canada. I believe we need clinics that incorporate numerous approaches to healing -- conventional medicine, psychology, functional medicine, complementary and alternative therapies, nutrition and exercise, sleep and spirituality -- all working together to help those who suffer from mental illness and their families create a plan of action for integrated and sustained recovery.

No one should ever have to suffer like I have. And no mother, father, sister, brother, family member, or friend should ever have to lose a loved one to mental illness. And no one should have to experience the added burden and shame of stigma. Stigma is why so many who suffer stay silent and do not seek the help they so desperately need. By talking now we can help to break stigma and open a life-saving conversation.

Bell's Let's Talk day is only the beginning. And my story is only one of thousands and thousands. Let's keep talking so we can break the stigma once and for all. Let's keep talking so we can create a new paradigm for mental health care in Canada.

The only thing I can think to write to follow that up with is, thank you Dawn. Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for your courage. Thank you for being you.