Friday, 27 December 2013

"Hummingbirds & Hope"

You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it. {Margaret Thatcher} Fight the good fight of faith... its so worth it! The victory is already yours! by andrearhowey, via Flickr

It has been two years since Adventures of a Survivor was born. Of course, I had no idea then what my future would hold - two more years on the hamster wheel of mental illness. It was so exhausting that at times I just wanted it to end. And by it, I mean everything. But here's the thing. Even when I was at my lowest ebb, I found some shred of strength and just kept going.

As I talk with people about mental illness and my own journey, two recurring misconceptions keep coming up - that people who are depressed are negative and that someone smiling can't possibly be depressed. There have been many times when my heart has clearly been pinned to my sleeve. You could take one glance at me and see my pain all over. But there have been the times when I have put on my mask and smiled through my discomfort and hurt. I have heard time and again, "But you always seem so positive and happy."
I have often felt discouraged by my illness, to put it mildly. And I have had negative experiences and interactions with people because of the depression. Well, because of the misunderstanding and stigma associated with depression. However, for some reason that I don't question, I have remained an optimist. Yes, there have been moments of "why me?" but I also know that I am not so special. One in five Canadians is currently fighting the same battle or will at some point in their lives.
"There will be times in your life when all you have left is hope for a better future. Never let go of that. Ever." ~ Robin Sharma
Hope is a powerful thing. When I felt it waning at times I would look for inspiration, something that is in abundance if you open your eyes to it. Hope, for me, was in the hugs from my niece and nephew. It was in a phone call from my best friend. It was in those effervescent hummingbirds dancing around my parents' garden on a summer afternoon. It was in a really good cup of coffee.
Depression can dull the small, simple pleasures in life. But it can also remind you how valuable those things really are, how integral they are to one's quality of life.
As you begin a new year, think about the small ways that you can make your life happier. No, I don't mean starting that diet or exercise routine. Yes, those can be wonderful things but I am talking about something different - cultivating hope and inspiration on a daily basis. Surround yourself with people who lift you up, not leave your spirit depleted. Create a tea time ritual in the evenings - get a pretty tea cup and saucer and try a new tea. When you go for a walk, don't think about the to-do list waiting for you at work or at home - focus on the scenery. Find a charity that resonates with you and choose a way to support them that fits into your life. Ask yourself, "What is the one little thing that I can do today that will make my life a little better?" Then do it.
Yes, I have had to fight the same battle many times in twenty years. It is very likely that I will continue to do so, off and on for the rest of my life. I am OK with that now because I know two things: I can do it and I will never lose hope. Guess what? You can do it, too.
KB xo
P.S. Have you taken the Pledge yet? Pledge to eliminate stigma surrounding mental illness and challenge misconceptions: Partners for Mental Health
P.P.S. Thank you, Tara, for my beautiful new tea cup & saucer. You inspired my own new tea ritual!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

"Re-set Button"

Take Your Time by Jay Roeder

'Tis the season! The season for what, exactly? To be jolly? For some people, absolutely. For many people, not so much.

The holiday season is many things to many people. For me it has mostly been a great time of year, one that I look forward to. I admit it, I am a card-carrying Christmasphile (I just created that - now it's a thing). I love Christmas lights, Christmas trees, turkey dinner with pumpkin pie, Christmas movies, Christmas shopping, giving gifts (getting gifts!) and on and on. But there are some things that I don't like about the season, the top of the list being the associated stress and anxiety.

We are getting close to Christmas and now I am starting to see it and hear it: the negative impacts of this 'festive' season. My mom told me that the night after she put her tree up she woke up in the middle of the night cranky. Why? Because all she could think of was the mess of boxes and extra ornaments and decorations still in her living room that she would have to clean up the next day. All this work for about two weeks of  pleasure (pleasure?).

I have seen comments from my friends on facebook and messages from readers of this blog about the Christmas myth. The myth being that all are happy and bright. Not so.

Yes, I love Christmas. But I have my own complicated relationship with the holiday. As a child I adored it and it was all gifts and happy times for me. I was, as kids can be, oblivious to any family tension around me. My family is like any other - add a few relatives or in-laws, throw in high expectations and pressure to have that Hallmark card holiday and stir. It's the recipe for anxiety.

It wasn't until I was an adult that my mom confessed that Christmas is not her favourite thing, to put it mildly. I was shocked. How could she not love everything about it?! How could I have been oblivious to her feelings?! Hmmm. Could this be true? Could there be people who really don't like Christmas, who actually find it difficult?

As I became an adult and had my own ups and downs in life Christmas became a more complicated thing for me. I lost both my grandmothers around Christmas over the course of a few years. I experienced depression. I became hyper-aware of everyone else and what they might be feeling. I began a quest to find the perfect gifts for each person. Because, as we all know, a pile of expensive material things always makes things so much better. Right?

Not exactly. And that's when Christmas began to be not so much fun for me. It took me awhile to really understand that I couldn't make everyone 'merry and bright' - that was their own responsibility. Once I let that go, I let a lot of my own stress about the season go as well. I began to focus on what it was about Christmas that made me happy and tried to eliminate as much of the other stuff as I could.

This year has been the hardest of my life. I have learned to guard my well being more than I ever have before. It has only been about two months since a very dark and heavy depression began to lift. The silver lining of this experience (because there is always a silver lining) is that I have become much better at knowing when to hit my re-set button.

When I begin to feel overwhelmed and I can feel the anxiety creeping forward (shortness of breath, headaches, difficulty finding the words to express myself, racing heart), I hit re-set. Everyone's re-set button is different. For some it might involve being with people. For me it's the opposite - I need to be alone and quiet. I need to take deep breaths, stretch, and listen to calming instrumental music. Sometimes it's a short break in my day between responsibilities or social engagements. It might even be going to my nearby home on my lunch break for a quick cat nap during the work day. I understand better than ever the importance of doing what I need to for my mental health and physical wellness.

As for this Christmas season? I have scaled back my self-imposed sense of obligation to others. I am reminding myself on a daily basis of what is important to me in the grand scheme of things. So I don't make it to that dinner with friends before Christmas - big deal. I will see them in January instead. And gone is the long shopping list. This year it's small and inexpensive but still thoughtful (I won't give up the quest for a gift that someone will truly love).

I still love to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas from my childhood and think of my Grandma who always made Christmas, and every day of the year, special for me. I have found life to be a much happier and more contented place for me since I began to focus on the small, truly important things - all year 'round, but especially at this time of year.

When you feel that 'most wonderful time of the year' anxiety creeping forward, hit your own re-set button. Catch your breath. Take your time.

KB xo

P.S. Are you struggling this holiday season? First of all, it's natural so don't beat yourself up about it. But please do ask for help. Talk with a good friend, seek help from your employee assistance program (if you have one) or check out some resources online:

Canadian Mental Health Association
Partners For Mental Health

Thursday, 28 November 2013

"All Around the World"

a little step...

A friend shared with me recently that she has just been diagnosed with anxiety. So, let's see - carry the three, multiply by...Oh, forget it. I give up.

At this point I have stopped counting the number of close friends, colleagues, acquaintances, family members, etc. who have had or currently have a mental illness of some sort. This club just keeps growing. Mental illness is, without doubt, the disease of our time.

The statistic in Canada is one in five - 25% of Canadians have had or will have a mental illness sometime in their life. But I wonder about that number. What does it really mean? What about the ones who don't believe that mental illness is real? What about the ones who will never seek treatment let alone admit that anything is wrong? And what about the ones who don't have access to health care? A number without context never tells the real story.

I was questioning the accuracy of these numbers when I came across the recently published Washington Post article about the rates of mental illness around the world. The journal PLOS Medicine published a study that used data on the "prevalence, incidence and duration of depression to determine the social and public health burden of the disorder around the world." Their findings? Depression is the "second-leading cause of disability, with slightly more than 4 percent of the world's population diagnosed with it." That's right, second-leading cause of disability in the WORLD.

How do they know this? As the Washington Post article states, they couldn't exactly knock on every person's door and test them for clinical depression. Santa may be able to make it around the world in a night but it's not that easy for the rest of us. The researchers relied upon pre-existing data.

I won't go into the factors that influence rates of depression around the world - the Washington Post article does a great job of that. But what the author, Caitlin Dewey, concludes in her article is that with ageing and population growth not likely to slow down, neither will the problem - we need to address this issue. Dewey and I agree on that.

We also agree that without eliminating taboo & stigma and creating conversation, we'll never move forward to sufficiently turn this around. So I am going to challenge you, dear reader, to be a little bit brave. When you hear someone make a joke about mental illness, maybe don't laugh just because you think you should. If you think that someone near you may be suffering, let them know that you care - be available if they need to talk (without judgement). Ask questions, challenge the status quo. And if you are fighting mental illness, please seek medical help. You do not need to fight this alone.

We are all on a journey in this life. Maybe let's help each other along the way. Together, I know that we can create change.

KB xo

Saturday, 19 October 2013

"Grace & Luck"

People have asked us why we get involved in ethical campaigns. A great man said it best:

"There but for the grace of God go I." I recite this to myself often as I consider how lucky I am, through circumstance or chance or maybe even due to a higher power or purpose. Then again it could just be pure, dumb luck that I was born into a loving, supportive family. Luck that I was given everything that I need to live a life of comfort. Not everyone is so lucky.

Is it strange that I should be writing about luck? After 20 plus years battling depression and anxiety, I feel lucky? OK, maybe I am not super pleased that I have had to walk this path. But I am incredibly grateful that I have the means with which to equip myself for the battle: family support; access to a team of health care providers which has included, at various times, a psychiatrist and psychologists; a generous employer provided benefits package (expensive meds that are at no cost to me); and a roof over my head & food in my cupboards.
There is no doubt about it - treating mental illness comes at a cost. If I didn’t have everything that I have described above, I would be on the streets like so many poor souls. Souls just like me. These are people who have illnesses that should be treated, can be treated. But, sadly, aren’t. This is the world that we live in in 2013. Did I mention that I live in Vancouver, Canada? The same Vancouver that was recently listed as one of the most livable cities in the world. I think we made it into the top three. Yup, that Vancouver.
Vancouver really is a pretty great city and I adore it – I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. I was very proud when our mayor and chief constable recently announced jointly & publicly that we are facing a crisis, a crisis of severe, untreated mental illness in Vancouver. Obviously I am not proud that this is a crisis but I am really pleased that our top leaders are saying that this is not OK. We can no longer turn a blind eye to what is happening in our own backyard. Unfortunately, British Columbia’s Health Minister, Terry Lake, doesn’t agree.
In an op ed piece in the October 17, 2013 Vancouver Sun, Dr. Kerry Jang writes that Lake’s response was that we have a “problem, not a crisis” and that “more study to understand the scope of the problem” is needed. So the three studies already completed weren’t enough? Hmmm.
I am not an expert in mental health issues and the policy changes that need to happen in government. But I do know that the three studies, along with the statistic that one in three police calls in Vancouver is mental health related means one thing – it’s time for action. Let’s take what we have learnt, think innovatively, and perhaps use some of that money that must be sitting around for Minister Lake to throw at yet another study and eliminate a crisis. Let’s do what we can to help those who suffer from addiction & mental illness.
Tonight on the news there was a story about Vancouver’s missing women and memorial paving stones to be placed in the downtown East side in their honour. One of the clips showed the name and birth date of one of the murdered women: Sarah De Vries - May 12, 1969. That’s my birth date.
I Googled Sarah and her story is a sad one. A sex trade worker, she suffered from addiction and her life ended tragically at the hand of Robert Pickton. "There but for the grace of God go I."
So yes, I am damn lucky. And because of that I cannot remain quiet and do nothing. That would be a life full of gifts wasted. Yes, there is a cost to treating mental illness. But should there be? For what is the cost to society if we don't treat our sickest?
KB xo
Want to help out somehow? There are some easy ways to get involved. First of all, become educated and challenge assumptions and stigma when you hear them. Check out the Canadian Mental Health Association or Partners for Mental Health to learn more or to find out about volunteer opportunities.
Vancouver has two wonderful organizations that help out the mentally ill in Vancouver's downtown east side and can always use donations of money or needed items: the Union Gospel Mission and the Kettle Society



Wednesday, 9 October 2013

"Down the Rabbit Hole"

Inspirational quote
It's been awhile since I last wrote. Where have I been? Back down the rabbit hole. That damn rabbit hole leads to a dark place. A place that I have become well acquainted with over the years. A place that I hate visiting.
When I stopped falling I seemed to land with a thud. And, quite frankly, I was scared. I had tried to go back to work but after two weeks it was simply impossible for me to continue. I couldn't function and the anxiety was, once again, overwhelming. I felt devastated, like I was a failure. I wanted to be at work, living a normal life - not merely existing.
It has taken me a few weeks to regain some equilibrium. I feel like I can breathe again and I don't feel like I am walking through wet cement all the time anymore. Am I well yet? No but I made the choice that I always make. I chose to keep moving forward, even if that means that right now it's just small steps. At least it's forward motion.
This post is a step in that direction. Not as long as they usually are, it's a small personal victory. I may not be where I want to be right now, but I am getting there. Slowly but surely.
KB xo

Monday, 9 September 2013

"Hope & Tomorrow"

tomorrow will be better
“There is a saying in Tibetan, 'Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.' No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that's our real disaster.” ~ Dalai Lama XIV 

Selfish. Attention seeking. Weak of mind. That's what we think when we hear someone has committed suicide, right? I admit that there was a time that I thought suicide was selfish. I thought how could anybody do that to their family and friends?  No regard for the pain that they would undoubtedly leave behind. I thought about the people left in the wake of the tragedy. I didn't think of the person themselves.

But that was before. That was before I knew what deep, unrelenting pain can feel like.

In 1841 a young lawyer wrote the following to his law partner: "I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would be not one cheerful face on Earth. Whether I shall ever be better, I cannot tell. I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible. I must die or be better, it appears to me." The young lawyer? Abraham Lincoln. He wrote of his pain and depression about 19 years before he became President of the United States and left a huge mark on history. Thank goodness he didn't choose death.

Some families have long histories of cancer or diabetes or some other particular disease to which many members are afflicted. In my family, the gene pool lottery came up with mental illness. There are at least three suicides that my mother can recall in her family tree and certainly many others of us who have lived with or are living through mental illness. *A cousin with schizophrenia walked into the North Saskatchewan River. An elderly uncle also walked into a river. And another shot himself.

Fun family history, huh? It makes me sad to think that these people who I never met but who are linked to me through family and shared experience, had lost all hope. Thankfully, I have never lost my own hope. In my worst days, and there have been countless, I have held onto those tiny shreds of hope and light. I have thought about letting go but never in a real way.

Nearly 3000 people on average commit suicide daily, according to the World Health Organization. For every person who completes a suicide, 20 or more may attempt to end their lives. If we do the math on that it amounts to about one million people who die by suicide each year.

So why do people do it? I strongly believe that nobody truly wants to die. They only want that deep, dark pain to end. Sometimes death feels like the only way to make that happen. But here's the bright spot in all this - suicide is 100% preventable.

The first step towards preventing suicide is to begin talking about mental illness. It's through conversation and education that we will eventually eliminate stigma. That is my greatest wish and hope and it's why I won't stop talking about something that so few want to talk about, still.

September 8 - 14 is World Suicide Prevention Week and the United Nations has declared Tuesday, September 10th World Suicide Prevention Day. You can honour those who have fallen and those who are still waging the war against mental illness by joining a global candlelight vigil and lighting a candle at 8pm in your time zone. If you are on Twitter, please tweet using the hashtag #WSPD.

Please join me in the discussion and the quest for understanding. Challenge your beliefs and those of others. As the Dalai Lama so wisely said, "If we lose our hope, that's our real disaster."

KB xo

* Please note that the family members who died by suicide came in generations before me.

P.S. If you or someone you know is suffering from mental illness or is suicidal, you must seek help. To learn more about mental illness please check out these great resources: World Suicide Prevention Day ; Partners for Mental Health and Canadian Mental Health Association

Monday, 26 August 2013

"There are Always Cupcakes"

Ohhh... that's good

Advice. According to the Oxford dictionary, the word advice is defined as: noun; guidance or recommendations concerning prudent future action, typically given by someone regarded as knowledgeable or authoritative.

Have you noticed that the world is full of people who love to give unsolicited advice? And I would wager that 99.9% of the time, the 'advice' provided is neither prudent nor given by someone regarded as knowledgeable. Sorry, Oxford dictionary.

When it comes to mental illness there is an endless supply of this so-called advice. It's almost always well meaning. Most of the time it comes from wanting to say something reassuring but there is almost always a lack of understanding that mental illnesses are just that - illnesses. Real illnesses.

In the two decades since my first diagnosis of depression, sometimes living with full blown major depressive episodes and sometimes in remission, I have pretty much heard it all and read it all. I accept and understand that my illness has to do with my brain circuitry and a hereditary disposition. Yes, there have also been situational stressors that have aggravated the illness at times, but that has not been the root cause of it for me.

I also understand that there are many things that I can do to try and maintain a healthy lifestyle: eat well, practice good sleep hygiene (yes, it's a thing), get regular exercise, manage stress, and surround myself with positive, supportive people.

But here's the kicker, people. These things will not always prevent a relapse. I cannot control my illness any more than someone with cancer can. Yes, I can (and do) treat my illness with both a scientific approach (with the professional guidance of my doctor) as well as holistically in the ways that I outlined above. Quite simply, I do everything that I can to mitigate risk of relapse.

And here, again, is a big difference between those of us who have been diagnosed with mental illness versus someone who has an illness or disease that shows up in a more physical manner: we get a lot of ridiculous, often annoying and sometimes hurtful, so-called advice. My favourites over the years have been "Just smile and think about all the good things in your life" and "Go for a walk and get some fresh air."

Granted, this is solid advice if you are sad or angry. That's because sad and angry are feelings - not illnesses. Focusing on the good or a bit of exercise can change your feelings fairly quickly, and that's a great thing. It doesn't work so quickly and effectively for someone battling a disease such as depression. These things alone will not make the black dog of depression go away.

I know it is really hard to understand this if you haven't experienced it yourself so I will compare depression to cancer, again. Would you tell someone fighting cancer to just go for a walk or think happy thoughts and expect that to be solid advice in which to battle that particular disease? Perhaps not.

Why is this well-meaning advice hurtful at times? Because it can be delivered in a way that can come across as dismissive and condescending. And sometimes, it's given with an undertone of 'you just aren't trying hard enough." A person experiencing a major depressive episode is already dealing with the feeling of being alone and overwhelmed, with feelings of inadequacy and guilt; the last thing they need to feel is misunderstood or that people lack empathy and caring.

Please don't let any of the above stop you from sharing some supportive words of hope, however. Hope is literally a lifeline to a person experiencing mental illness. While 'advice' is everywhere, kind gestures can be rare. Just take a moment to consider that the pain is real and all they really want to hear is that you are there for them. And if you still really want to provide a moment of comfort why not choose from this list, all of which are solid suggestions in my opinion:

Knowing that there are always cupcakes is a good thing.
KB xo

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

"No Casseroles"

 You are not #alone. #Friends #Family #SupportBoard #DisabilityNinjas #Support #Understand #SupportGroup #Forum #Bond #Disability #ChronicIllness #ChronicPain #InvisibleIllness #MentalIllness #MentalHealth
A friend posted a really interesting article from the LA Times on facebook today. It was about what not to say to people with a serious illness such as cancer. The author, who had fought breast cancer, had heard everything from "This illness isn't just about you. It's about me, too." to "I am not sure I can handle this diagnosis." Remember, these are things that friends and colleagues said to her, not the other way around. I was struck by how personal the reactions were. I couldn't help but compare this to my own experiences with severe depression.
There is a stark contrast between how people with a physical disease are perceived and treated and those who are diagnosed with a brain illness. Society still gives more weight to physical illness. Make no mistake, depression is a disease. It's a deadly disease. But it's one that people find it difficult to wrap their head around (no pun intended). Instead of feeling it personally and deeply when a friend is diagnosed with depression, many people withdraw and pull away. It's the opposite reaction to what the author experienced during cancer and described in her story.
We think we know what to do if someone dies or if a loved one is seriously ill. We bake cookies, we make casseroles, we send a card or flowers, we call to check in and see how they are doing. Another blog about mental illness that I once read said that mental illness is not a 'casserole' illness - don't expect anyone to show up at your door with a home-cooked casserole. How true.
I have never received that homemade casserole and only once received flowers during any of the three major depressive episodes that I have endured. Let me be clear - I am absolutely not complaining about lack of said casserole. I just think it's important to highlight the reality, the loneliness and feeling of alienation that people who are fighting depression go through. How many of those around you will withdraw and slowly disappear.

I have been incredibly lucky to have the love and unwavering support from my family and a small group of close friends. But many colleagues and friends just didn't know what to do or say so they chose not to do anything. That was just sad to me and, in some cases, heartbreaking.

Someone said a really honest thing to me the other day. This person, who is going through some challenging times personally, said, "You know, I just didn't have any empathy for what you were going through until now. Now I understand better." I kind of appreciate that honesty. But here's the thing. I may have never experienced cancer or diabetes or a broken leg but I am still able to feel and show empathy towards someone who has. Why is it different for people with mental illness?

Yes, I have felt let down by people at times. But I also understand that it's difficult to really support someone through something if you just don't understand it. And why don't we understand mental illnesses? Because we still don't talk about them enough. Broken record, I know.
“We are not primarily on earth to see through one another, but to see one another through” ~ Anonymous
So what do you do or say if you just aren't sure what will help someone diagnosed with a mental illness? I would say start with that. A simple, "I don't know exactly what you are feeling but I know that you are going through something difficult and I will be here for you" speaks volumes.

So what helped me? What would I recommend that you do if you have someone whom you care about who is depressed? Here are some of the things, the gestures and kind words, that have helped me along the way:

* The friends who told me that I could call them at any time, night or day, were invaluable to me. I never made any middle of the night calls but just knowing that I could was huge. And, believe it or not, only a couple of people actually said this to me.

* My best friend made sure that I knew that I was welcome for family dinner with her, her hubby, and two small boys every Monday night. Knowing that I had a standing date with my second family was incredibly comforting. And all I had to do was sit at the table and be loved.

* A few wonderful friends and colleagues would send me texts and emails with silly knock knock jokes or simple notes to say that they missed me and were thinking of me. That never failed to make me smile, even on days when my smile was loathe to make an appearance.

* Some people told me that they were praying for me or sent me spiritual words of support. Now, I am absolutely not religious. But I respect those who have made the choice to have religion in their lives and I feel very honoured when I have been told that I am in someone's prayers. I consider that a huge gift.

* Perhaps most importantly, my family has given me exactly what I have needed and when I have needed it. My dad slept on my couch one night because he didn't want me to be alone. My brother listened to me. And my mom has held me through my tears.

Even after all my years living with the disease of depression I still never presume to know exactly what another person with the illness is going through - we are all unique and have different experiences. But I try to show empathy in ways that I hope will provide some sort of support and comfort. It's not always easy and sometimes I don't get it right, either. But I still try. You know that old saying? Treat others as you would like them to treat you. It still rings true.

I may not have received a casserole or been inundated with flowers but I must share one final thing. A dear colleague sent me perhaps the most thoughtful gift that I have ever received. I was on short term disability leave and staying with my parents, experiencing one of my darkest days. My dad returned from getting the mail and handed me a small package. In it was a lovely bracelet with a note that read, "Something beautiful on the outside for someone beautiful on the inside." I'll take that over a casserole any day!

KB xo

P.S. Random acts of kindness? Nah! Watch Jamie D. Grant's TedX talk and be specific with your kindness!

Sunday, 4 August 2013

"Bakery Air"

When I have kids will put this on their wall... Reading is the key to getting ahead in life...
A good book. For me, there is nothing quite like it. Back in the early seasons of the television show Survivor, contestants were allowed to bring one luxury item with them. My luxury item would have been a book. Pretty sure I would have been voted off the island early on but at least I would have been happy.
An engrossing book has been so many things to me throughout my life. It's been escape, adventure, travelogue, comfort, education, humour. On my journey through mental illness it has certainly been all these things and more. Soldiers don't go into war unarmed and I decided early on that I wouldn't go into my battle against depression without an arsenal of weapons of my own. Educating myself as to what I was (am) up against was never a question for me.
There are really three types of books in the category of mental illness and wellness that have been useful to me over the years: 1) self-help (workbooks, medical/scientific); 2) memoir; and 3) a category that I will call "break in case of smile emergency". This is just a small sampling of my favourites:
A book that has been super helpful to me over the years is one that I seem to keep going back to. It's a workbook called "Your Depression Map" by Randy J. Paterson, PhD. I love this book because it breaks down the illness of depression in a way that is easy to understand and digest. Paterson doesn't overwhelm (or bore) the reader with too much science-speak. The book is well laid out with wonderful suggestions for personalized treatment plans. If you can only read one book on depression this is the one.
The second book in this category is "Well Being: The Five Essential Elements" by Tom Rath and Jim Harter. Although not a book about depression, the explanation of the elements required to live a full, balanced, and "well" life are useful to anyone fighting depression. Rath and Harter are two Gallup scientists who have solid scientific information to back up their claims. Feel like your life is out of balance? Read this book.
I love this category and I think it's so important for anyone fighting mental illness. As I have said so many times before, depression (and many brain illnesses) is an illness that makes you feel very alone. Part of the reason for that is because so many people don't speak of it. This is why memoirs are so valuable. There is always comfort in knowing that you really aren't "the only one."
The first memoir on my list is "Changing My Mind" by Margaret Trudeau. For those of you of a certain age you will remember Trudeau as the young, free-spirited, "crazy" wife of Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau. For those of you who don't recall those days, she's Justin Trudeau's mom! I love her book because she tells a tale that is familiar to many: she spent years without a correct, accurate diagnosis of her mental illness. As a result, she didn't always receive the treatment that she needed, when she needed it. Oh, and she had to go on this journey in a very public way, bearing the brunt of the world's criticism and misunderstanding. Certainly not an easy task. Today Trudeau is an advocate on the topic of mental illness and wellness.
The second memoir on my list is a rarity - it addresses the topic of mental illness and the workplace. "Out of the Blue" by Canadian journalist and writer Jan Wong describes Wong's descent into deep depression after suffering trauma on the job and the subsequent very poor treatment of her by her employer, The Globe and Mail. I found Wong's account of her experiences riveting and appalling and her bravery inspiring. A must read for employers and human resources professionals.
Break in Case of Smile Emergency
This is the category that is simply fun. It's all about finding the smile that can be so elusive when you are in the dark depths of depression. The book that tops my list in this category is "The Book of Awesome" by Neil Pasricha. It's basically a compilation of things that Pasricha considers awesome. An example? How about 'bakery air'? "Bakery air is that steaming hot front of thick, buttery fumes waiting for you just inside the door of a bakery. And I am just going to tell you something straight up: that is some fine air."
In my last post I shared some insights from my fellow Partners for Mental Health community correspondents about their top tips for dealing with mental illness. I went back to the well a second time for a list of the books that they feel helped them along their own journeys. Here are their top picks:
* "Mindsight" by Dr. Dan Siegel
* "Mind Over Mood" by Dennis Greenberger, PhD and Christine A. Padesky, PhD
* "The Buddha and the Borderline" by Kiera Van Gelder
* "Writing Through the Darkness: Easing Your Depression with Paper and Pen" by Elizabeth Maynard Schaefer
* "Speaking of Sadness: Depression, Disconnection, and the Meanings of Illness" by David A. Karp
* "The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression" by Andrew Solomon
* "Psychiatric Tales: Eleven Graphic Stories About Mental Illness" by Darryl Cunningham
* "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Finkel
The next time you are lacking inspiration or that smile, head to your library or local book store. Then maybe stop by a bakery and breathe in some of that fine bakery air. Bet you'll find your smile, even if just for a moment.
KB xo
P.S. I want to hear from you! Do you have any suggestions to add to our list? If so, please share them!
P.P.S. Thank you to Kathleen, Casey, Paige, Allison, Aidan!

Monday, 22 July 2013

"Penny for Your Thoughts"

Stigma quote by Marian Anderson - Prejudice is like a hair across your cheek. You can't see it, you can't find it with your fingers, but you keep brushing at it because the feel of it is irritating.
What exactly is stigma? Is it prejudice? They are connected, intertwined, that is for certain. Especially on the subject of mental illness. Sometimes it's subtle and sometimes it's not.
Ever since I began speaking years ago about my own battles with depression, and now with this blog, I hear from people, strangers, colleagues, and friends, on a daily basis who are waging their own wars. Their personal stories, words of support for my own health, and encouragement for the work that I do to raise awareness on this topic are all so inspiring and rewarding to me. Whenever someone shares a piece of themselves with me, I become a bit stronger. I feel less alone on those particularly dark days and I learn about how others cope. Adding a few tips and tricks to my mental health tool kit is always good!
There are many of us out there - one in five Canadians have been diagnosed or will be diagnosed with mental illness in their lifetime.  But most of us still aren't talking about it openly. It's still somewhat shameful. As I have said many times before, unless more of us come out of the mental illness closet we will never truly come out from under the shroud of stigma and the discrimination that goes along with it. So, I thought I would poll my amazing support group, my Partners for Mental Health community correspondents family, on what they feel are the biggest misconceptions about mental illness. Here's our list:
1. People only suffer mental illness as a result of trauma: Yes, mental illness is often a result of some sort of trauma such as job loss, illness, or death of a loved one. But there are also other causes. We have heard in the last couple of years about sports injuries and brain illness, for example. And we know that bio-chemical imbalances in the brain as well as a genetic disposition all play a role in whether or not you will be among the one in five.
2. Medicine fixes everything: There's a lack of understanding about what hard work recovery is and all the elements involved in it (medication, cognitive behavioural therapy, nutrition and exercise, social connection). Additionally, there are many kinds of meds and not all of them are effective for everyone. I have been lucky and have only had to tweak my medications once but I know people who struggle to hold onto hope as they try one medication after another until they find the right one (or combination of meds).
3. Mental illness is just an excuse for bad behaviour: According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada 46% of Canadians believe this to be true. What is perceived as bad behaviour are actually symptoms of illness: irritability, anger, crying, etc. It's worth noting that men and women often display different symptoms. For example, men typically show anger when they are depressed.
4. You can just "snap out of it": Mental illness is not the flu, it won't pass in five days. It takes time, whether that be a couple of months, or a couple of years. See point four below...
5. When you feel better then you are all better: Recovery from mental illness is full of ups and downs. You may feel better for a few days but that doesn't always mean that you are recovered and that your illness is in remission.  I like to compare recovery to climbing Mt. Everest - you don't get to the top in one day and sometimes you need to climb back down to base camp to acclimate. You need to persevere and not give up.

That's what we are up against. It's frustrating but I also understand that unless we talk about it, nothing will change. That's why some of us want to talk about it - to help people understand. But it's not all doom and gloom! While I was at it I thought I would gather my colleagues' top tips to help you or a loved one through mental illness:
1. You are in control of your own recovery: Don't just do what your doctor says if it doesn't feel right. There are many elements involved in treatment and recovery and you need to find the right combination for yourself.  Seek professional medical advice and help, weigh your options, and do what feels best for you.
2. Find your caregiver dream team: Finding the right match of therapist or doctor can sometimes be challenging. If you don't feel comfortable with that person, or if he or she treats you with less than empathy and respect, you need to move on to the next health care professional. If you have a bad experience with one or two, just don't give up - keep searching for the right help.
3. Find others who have been through a similar situation for support/guidance: Being able to relate to someone and have someone relate to you is really important. My PFMH family is that group of people for me.
4. Find people who are supportive of you: This is really important and kind of tricky sometimes. Surround yourself with only supportive, positive people. Distance yourself from people who negatively affect your self-esteem and recovery.
5. Know you're NEVER alone: You are not the only one going through this and sometimes there is a tiny bit of comfort in knowing that. Refer to points three and four above!                    
My favourite piece of advice? It comes from Ashley: "Have a little hope."
KB xo
For more information about mental health issues please visit the Canadian Mental Health Association's website. They have some fabulous resources to help you on your journey.
P.S. Thank you to Kathleen, Ashley, Charlotte, Casey, Meaghan, Meg, Allison - you guys ROCK!

Sunday, 14 July 2013

"Invincible Summer"

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”
~ Albert Camus
Do you ever have that feeling that the universe is working against you? Maybe you woke up late, missed your bus, and when you got to work you realized that you left your lunch on the counter back at home. Don't you just hate those days?

Now imagine that you are fighting a debilitating illness. Depression alone is not so great on the best of days - feelings of isolation, despair, hopelessness, and sadness. Add to that some 'fun' factors such as fatigue, weight gain, and financial strain. It can make you feel like you are fighting a losing battle.

I seem to be making the slow journey back out of depression, for which I am overjoyed. At least, I would be overjoyed if I had the energy. Just when I thought my battle was almost over, a few new ones came along. Challenge number one? Overwhelming fatigue.

Yes, fatigue is a common symptom of depression. But this time for me it has been more than that - bigger, stronger, all-encompassing. So back to my doctor for consultation and a round of tests. I was tested for possible thyroid problems, iron levels, and diabetes. All clear (phew!).

Then it was off to a sleep specialist for more testing. This time, the tests told another story: sleep apnea (a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts). My sleep tests showed that I was waking up (without realizing it) an average of 14 times per hour. No wonder I am exhausted all the time. The great news, however, is that I now know what I am dealing with. I am receiving treatment and, with any luck, I'll be feeling the positive effects in a few weeks and I won't feel like I have the energy levels of a turtle any longer (no offence to turtles).

The next challenge? Weight gain. Yes, another awesome (!) side effect of most anti-depressant medications is weight gain. Funny how the drug companies don't exactly advertise that. If that weren't enough, many of us who are depressed often eat to self-soothe. At a time when you aren't feeling so great about life and yourself, throw on a few extra pounds and see how you feel then - not so great. Now factor in the fatigue that keeps you in bed or on the couch when you know you should be exercising.

Too tired to exercise because of the depression, eating to self-soothe, gaining weight from the meds, tired because of the extra weight you are now carrying, you know you should exercise because of the physical and mental health benefits and yet you are just...too...tired. It feels like you are running in circles (or, again, it would if you had the energy).

And the final challenge? Financial. This is a tough one, a topic that could probably use it's own post. If you are lucky enough to work for a great company (like I do) that has a generous benefits program (like mine does), then the financial impact is reduced. Employees on short term disability leave at my company still earn a paycheque, just one that is smaller. We also have access to an employee assistance program with counsellors as well as financial assistance for psychologists and psychiatrists, and coverage for the required medications. Not everyone is so lucky.

Yes, I am one of the lucky ones because, although my money is tight these days, I am not in a dire situation. For others who don't have such generous benefits plans, the added stress of financial concerns can make recovering from depression or anxiety that much more challenging.

So how to approach these challenges? I will take the same approach that I have taken in the past with my depression - by treating myself with respect and care. I'll take each day as it comes and set small goals for myself. I have faced and overcome challenges bigger than a few extra pounds, some fatigue, and moths in my wallet (!) so I'll overcome these latest additions.

Is the universe against me? Nah. In fact, I think it's actually on my side, teaching me things, making me stronger. The most important thing that I have learned along my journey? Within me is an invincible summer.

KB xo

Monday, 1 July 2013

"Accept Nothing Less"

We wish nothing more, but we will accept nothing less. Masters in our own house we must be, but our house is the whole of Canada.
Pierre Trudeau

Today is Canada Day and I am a staunchly proud Canadian. As I watch the reports on television of the uprisings and political unrest in Egypt, Syria, and Turkey or the stories about the abuse of women in India or even the fight (again!) for women's reproductive rights in the United States, I am so grateful. I am grateful that I had the sheer good fortune of being born in a democratic, somewhat socialist leaning nation, such as Canada.

I can go through a long list of things that I love about my country (butter tarts, the Canadian Rockies, Mr. Dressup) or why I am proud of it (Rick Hansen, women's rights, multi-culturalism) but I will narrow it down to two things that I read about this past week that pertain to mental health issues in Canada and the elimination of stigma.

First of all, there was the tragedy & devastation of the recent flooding in Alberta. I, like all Canadians, was fascinated by the sheer force of nature and the impact that it was capable off. The town of High River is still mostly under water and it will take years for the province to recover from this natural disaster.

But as the days wore on we were able to see past the physical impact on homes and communities to the emotional impact. Lives will never be the same. So how does that affect a person's mental health? Well, it cannot be underestimated. People need help and support for the emotional part as much as they do to repair their homes. News reports stated that use of help lines was up considerably in the days following the flooding. I am so happy to know that people were/are reaching out for help.

And I guess that Alberta Premier, Alison Redford, knew that looking after her people's mental health was just as important an element in rebuilding communities as the 'boots on the ground' are because on June 28th she announced the appointment of a new provincial Chief Mental Health Officer, Dr. Michael Trew. Redford's statement said that it was "to help victims of the recent flooding cope with the emotional and psychological consequences of this disaster." Good for you, Redford, and good for Albertans.

The second thing that happened was the announcement that work is under way on a Canadian guide to mental health reporting. Hooray! Is this really very important, you may ask. Quite simply, it's hugely important. The media often will unintentionally reinforce misconceptions associated with mental health issues. Instead of informing, they sometimes perpetuate stigma and myth. In their press release, the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma explain it like this:

"There's been some excellent, groundbreaking work on this in the media across the country in the last few years. But there are also cases where coverage, in the context of breaking news, reinforces damaging myths. Often this happens when general news reporters have to cover dramatic incidents involving mental health issues without warning. We want to help them - and others just entering the business - avoid pitfalls, add vital perspective and reduce collateral damage."

Why is this? Because they don't understand. Which is exactly why we need discussion and education about mental health issues, and certainly amongst those we trust in presenting facts and news. Yay, Canada!

As I write this I am feeling pretty good about Canada, this country that I love and am so very happy to claim as my own. We Canadians aren't perfect but we keep quietly working, striving towards something better, together, and that is something to be very proud of. Healthy people build healthy communities.

KB xo

P.S. this is dedicated to my Partners for Mental Health family spread all across this awesome country!

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

"A Fork Stuck in the Road"

Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road
Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go
So make the best of this test, and don't ask why
It's not a question, but a lesson learned in time
"Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)" ~ Greenday

I have recently attended two graduation ceremonies - one was the high school graduation of a family friend and the second was my niece's graduation from seventh grade. Of course, the focus for both events was reflecting on the past but looking toward the future. It's a significant time for a student, a fork in the road of life.

Listening to the various speeches during these ceremonies and thinking of the lives yet to be lived, and dreams yet to be achieved, I couldn't help but reflect on my own life. It's a natural time for me to do this as I am at my own personal crossroads. That's what a depressive episode is to me - a time to reflect on where I am, what I have achieved and what I still want to do with my life, how I want to live it.

I am often asked what causes my depression. It's a natural question - we want to be able to put the blame somewhere and to explain 'why' in order to understand. Sometimes I can answer the question and sometimes I can't. At this point in my life I have endured three major depressive episodes. I have a genetic disposition to the illness of depression (lots of family history of the disease) and that has certainly explained the fairly persistent melancholy that I have experienced throughout most of my life - my mom has called me her 'melancholy baby' many times over the years. So sometimes there has not been a specific incident that I can point to, the 'why'. Other times there have been triggers in my life that have brought about a depressive episode.

In a weird way perhaps, I view a depressive episode as an opportunity. OK wait, don't get me wrong - being depressed is awful and if I could get hold of a 'get out of jail free' card, I would grab it! But since this seems to be my cross to bear in life, then I am going to try and get something out of it, dammit.

So what's the opportunity? It's a chance to take stock of my life. In the instances where there has been a trigger for my illness, that's surely a sign that something isn't working, something needs to change. Sometimes the signs are big and sometimes they are subtle and not so easy to read.

But here's the thing: you are never too old or too long out of school to make changes to your life, to create that bucket list or take up a new hobby, start a new relationship or maybe end one. Life is full of opportunities, it's just whether we choose to recognize them as such that makes all the difference.

As I begin what I hope to be the journey out of my depression, I am going to embrace all those graduation cliches that I have heard lately and apply them to my own life. I may be at a fork in the road, but I am not stuck here. Soon I'll be motoring along on my way to the next chapter of my life story. In the end I want to be able to say that I had the time of my life.

KB xo

P.S. Want to know what a 'depressive episode' is? Here's the definition: a manifestation of a major mood disorder involving an enduring period of some or all of the following signs: significant sadness, tearfulness, decreased appetite, weight loss, sleep and energy disturbance, psychomotor agitation or retardation, feelings of worthlessness, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, decreased concentration, thoughts of death, and suicidal ideation

If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, please seek help. You can learn more about mental illness through the Canadian Mental Health Association and Partners for Mental Health

Tuesday, 18 June 2013


Help me if you can, I'm feeling down
And I do appreciate you being 'round
Help me get my feet back on the ground
Won't you, please, please help me?
Help by Lennon & McCartney

Asking for and receiving help when you are fighting mental illness is crucial. You simply can't win the battle on your own. Well, maybe you can but it will be a heck of a lot more painful and arduous a journey. And besides, if you had a broken leg would you set it and place it in a cast on your own?

That first call for help, perhaps to a loved one, friend or your family doctor, is often the hardest step to take. Personally, I have often hesitated. I may know that I am moving towards another depressive episode and that I can't do it alone. But I hesitate. Even after all these years and the numerous episodes that I have weathered I hesitate because I don't want to burden anyone. And sometimes I just don't want to admit that my devil is back.

But then I remember that I can't do this alone - I need help and so I ask for it. That first call is what puts the wheels in motion and brings me to the first step on the path to wellness.

I have been lucky overall when it comes to receiving help and treatment. As I have written before, I have a loving and supportive network that includes my wonderful family and friends, my colleagues, my doctor, and former psychiatrist. Aside from a poor fit with a psychologist, and a rough go at a mood disorder clinic as part of a study, I have received the treatment that I need. This is not the case for all, however.

I am part of a fabulous community of people, my fellow Partners for Mental Health (PFMH)community correspondents. We support each other by sharing each others blogs, we brainstorm advocacy ideas, and share educational opportunities. The most important thing that we do, however, is support each other through our battles with mental illness. Being able to have someone to lean on who actually understands what  mental illness is really like, and the stigma attached, is invaluable.

This blog post has been born out of that support network and the discussions of our personal stories that we share amongst each other. There has been a lot of discussion recently about how challenging it can be to get the help that you need from our medical system. Now let me be clear, I am not here to complain about the Canadian health care system - it has actually been very kind to me. But it's far from perfect and it certainly is lacking in the field of mental illness. And as they say, "good enough isn't."

Yes, it is often painfully difficult to ask for help, to make the decision to not suffer alone and in silence. Now imagine that you have taken that step and the "help" that you get is harmful. We all have stories of brusque insurance companies and insensitive health care workers. Add to those the stories of meds being prescribed at a dosage high enough to raise a red flag to a pharmacist because of the Health Canada warning of dangerous side effects (thank goodness the pharmacist caught what the doctor failed to).

Or how about the psychiatrist who was "fired" by his patient but then called her numerous times until she finally answered and then badgered her to find out why she wasn't seeing him anymore?

Finally (far from it, but for the purposes of this post it will be the last example), the stories of my comrades who suffer from eating disorders as well as depression who don't seem to fit into one neat and tidy category so they get bumped around from program to health care practitioner to hospital, hoping that something will fit.

It's all rather discouraging at times. Ironically, at the times when you most need to be strong and advocate for  yourself, those are the times when the strength feels as if it's in short supply. I promise you this - the strength is still there. But strength in numbers is even better. So create a support network, educate yourself on your illness (or that of a loved one fighting mental illness), and advocate for yourself.

I won't give up the fight and I hope that all my PFMH won't either. The support, affection, and guidance that they give me - the help - is an incredible gift. It's a gift that I gave myself because I asked for it. And I never regret that I asked for help.

KB xo

P.S. Dedicated to my PFMH family - you inspire me each and every day!

To learn more about mental illness please visit the Canadian Mental Health Association's website.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

"Intermittent Cloudy Periods"

 “He knows bad days. Bad days take him completely by surprise. They make him not trust the good days because it's likely something is lurking twenty-four hours away.”
~ Melina Marchetta, The Piper's Son
I know bad days. Boy do I ever. I just had a couple of them. Depression can feel a little bit like the weather. Some days are bright and sunny without a cloud in the sky. All you feel is the warmth on your face and a song in your heart. Those are the great days, the days that I seldom take for granted anymore. I have learnt not to.
And then there are the days riddled with storm clouds. Sometimes they come crashing in and you don't see them coming. Other times you can see them and feel them. The shadows slowly but surely crawl across the sky and block out the sunshine, bringing with them a sense of dread and a feeling that you need to seek shelter from what is surely the storm to come.
Sometimes I don't trust the good days. I know how fleeting they can be. Sometimes I feel too beaten down by the bad days to believe the good days will come again and that they will last. Sometimes.
I have had a lovely stretch of sunny weather lately - the depression has mostly receded and I am getting stronger and stronger every day. Spring with it's showers is on the way out and summer with it's sunshiny days is growing nearer. But it's not my first date with depression - I get how this works. I am not fooled.
Recovery, as I have written many times before, is not a smooth, straight path forward. It's far from it, in fact. If you have the flu there is a point where you can tell that you are beginning to get better. And from there it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that you will, each day, feel a little bit better until you are well and the flu is but a memory of tissues, soup, and sleep. One day you wake up and it's completely gone. Recovering from depression is a little like that but also a lot NOT like that.
The path to wellness and recovery from depression is slow and tedious. Yes, there is often a point where I know that I have turned a corner and better days are ahead. But it's more like a game of snakes and ladders - lots of up and down! The most important thing for me to keep in mind as I navigate the pitfalls of recovery is to keep things in perspective. One or two bad days does not equal relapse. In a way, one or two bad days is something to be celebrated. Celebrated because they are one or two and not ten or twelve. Perspective. It's vital.
“So long as there is breath in me, that long I will persist. For now I know one of the greatest principles of success; if I persist long enough I will win.” ~ Og Mandino
One of my favourite sayings about depression that I have found is this, "Depression is a lying bastard." On the days that it takes hold it tells me things. It whispers, seductively in my ear, "give up." There have been many times over the years when that siren call was almost too much to ignore. But I did. I pushed it away and drew on some reserve of strength that I didn't know I had. I held on because I knew, deep in my soul, that sunnier days were ahead. The clouds would part and that song would return to my heart. I trust in the good days. You should, too.
KB xo
P.S. Are you or someone you love suffering from mental illness? If so, please don't fight this alone. There are many fabulous organizations and resources available to help you. Please visit the Canadian Mental Health Association website for more information.


Wednesday, 29 May 2013


“Tomorrow will be better.”
“But what if it’s not?” I asked.
“Then you say it again tomorrow. Because it might be. You never know, right? At some point, tomorrow will be better.”
~ Morgan Matson, Amy and Roger's Epic Detour
It seems to be tomorrow already. Funny how it can sneak up on you. Time flies and all that. In truth, it took about a month of darkness to get to tomorrow, to get to the light.
Yes, I am "back" -  I feel like me again. What a wonderful feeling to do normal, mundane, everyday things like go to work, walk down a sidewalk, and have conversation with people that doesn't centre around how I am feeling. Phew! Who knew boring could be so wonderful.
My biggest lesson after all these years fighting my nemesis is this: things always get better. Sometimes it takes longer than other times. Sometimes there is more pain. Sometimes hope seems to be more fleeting. But the end result is that I always seem to find my way back. The gift in having gone through more than one major depressive episode in my life (did I really just use the word 'gift'?!), is that I have proven myself stronger and more resilient than I ever knew.
If I could boil it down to one message to share with anyone fighting this dark battle it would be this: never give up hope. Never.
But I didn't do this alone, not this time and not any of the times before. I had support, love, and understanding from many areas of my life: family, medical professionals, friends, and my employers. As the saying goes, "It takes a village to raise a child." It also takes a village to support a person afflicted with mental illness.
I became affiliated with Partners for Mental Health, a Canadian not for profit organization, about a year ago. I had been searching for a mental health organization to volunteer with for awhile and they fit the bill in terms of what I was looking for. In addition to the wonderful feeling that I get from helping them raise awareness of our joint cause, I have been able to connect with a community of like-minded volunteers also working with PFMH. I have been able to expand my village, so to speak. I have a new family who support me in my struggles and who I can also support. It's wonderful!
I can't emphasize enough how important a sense of community is for those suffering from mental illness. A classic hallmark of depression is the fact that it's a disease that encourages isolation and withdrawal from relationships. The very thing that you need, ironically, almost feels like it's out of reach. Becoming part of a community that understands your symptoms and the challenges that they bring can play a huge role in your recovery. We all want to feel understood, don't we?
Another organization that does a fabulous job of creating community, and has done for the past 35 years in Vancouver, is the Kettle Society. Now, how I am only learning about this wonderful organization I don't know. But today I was invited to attend the Making a Difference luncheon, billed as a "friend-raiser", at the Four Seasons Hotel. The company that I work for is a supporter of the Kettle Society, I am very proud to say, and had a table at the event.
As part of the event we listened as people read excerpts from a book called Hidden Lives - Coming out of Mental Illness. Touching and inspiring stories that illustrate why we need to bring the topic of mental illness out of the shadows.
One of the speakers was Lenore Rowntree, an editor of the book. She said that the title was inspired by the story of Harvey Milk, the openly gay politician in San Francisco at a time when those who lived their lives openly as gay people were marginalised and discriminated against. Rowntree compared the fight against the stigma of mental illness with that of the fight for gay rights 30 years ago (and still today, to an extent).
I couldn't agree more with her comparison. This is a civil rights issue. There are far too many of us who are still in the closet on this topic. Why is it still shameful to say that you have been diagnosed with depression or schizophrenia or bipolar disorder? Why is that? I hope for more people to open the door and step out. I think when you do that, you are a step closer to the light and finding a community of support.
I also understand why people choose to stay firmly behind the door and in that dark closet. Although we are making headway in reducing misunderstanding and discrimination, it still happens. I have experienced it and I know too many others who have also.
But that is why organizations such as Partners for Mental Health and the Kettle Society are so important. They, along with many other "villages" across Canada, are creating a sense of community and spreading the word that tomorrow will come. It will come and things will be better again. So don't give up. Never give up!
KB xo

P.S. Thank you very much to Ken who gave up his ticket to this event for me!

Friday, 24 May 2013

"Making a Molehill out of a Mountain"

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” 
~ Margaret Mead

When you think about a work environment that is healthy and safe, what first comes to mind? Do you think about the first aid kit in the office lunch room? Maybe it's the annual fire drill. What about those steel-toed boots that are required for construction workers? You would be correct - these are examples of things that are covered under occupational health and safety legislation.

Did you know that Canada has recently introduced a similar voluntary standard for psychologically healthy workplaces?

I know what you are probably thinking: Wow. Um, that sounds like kind of a big thing. A lot of responsibility on Canadian employers. Hmm. What does this mean and how the heck are we going to even approach this? And what is a psychologically healthy work environment anyway?!

I am certain that workplaces across this country are asking the same thing. You (and they) may be thinking that this is just another touchy-feely human resources initiative. Well, it's not that at all. In fact, many human resources professionals aren't even quite sure about this yet either.

The concept of a psychologically healthy work environment is a relatively new one. Work environments have evolved and changed over the years. Remember when it was just the "Dad" who worked? He worked at the same company for his entire career and knew not to question his boss. Show up, do your job, keep your personal life private, and go home at the end of the day. Work environments today are more diverse and have added responsibilities and stressors - do more with less is a familiar mantra for many of us.

We now understand what motivates and engages employees to do their best work. We know what rewards employees value, what can attract a person to a job and what can keep them in that job. But   how often do we as employers actually follow what we know to be true? How often do managers forget these things when deadlines need to be met or there are sales targets to be achieved? They feel the pressure, too. We are just starting to understand the impact of stress and mismanagement on employees and how that translates to the Canadian economy and our communities.

Traditionally, workplaces have invested lots of time and money in so-called wellness initiatives. Maybe a few lunch time yoga classes or a place to store your bike so you can ride to and from work. If  an employer has an EFAP (employee and family assistance program) then they are all good, right? When an employee needs help with "personal issues", Mr or Ms Manager can refer them to the EFAP for help and then wash their hands of the whole matter. Done! All looked after. Now back to work.

That's not good enough. And the $51billion impact to the Canadian economy tells us this. Actually, it's screaming this message. Are we listening?

“Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.”
~ Wayne Dwyer

Maybe it's time to change how we view mental health issues in the workplace. Maybe we should try a new approach. No, not maybe. It's time.

Many employers look at the topic of mental illness as intimidating, treacherous, and complicated. They build it up into this big thing that becomes so overwhelming that they choose to avoid it. I don't think it's insurmountable. In fact, I know it's not. Instead of focusing on the possible cost of workplace accommodation and disability leaves for people with mental illness, let's start looking at prevention. And that's what the voluntary standard on psychologically healthy workplaces is all about.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” 
~ Nelson Mandela 

If we focus on creating respectful, trusting, mentally healthy workplaces then we will reduce and eliminate many stress induced mental illnesses. How do we do this? Through education and strong leadership.

Leadership: Our leaders (the CEOs, directors, business owners) need to be clear about the importance of this and say that this is a non-negotiable part of the workplace, just like occupational health and safety standards. Then they need to hold their management team accountable.

Skills Building: Our managers need to be given the skills to lead people. Too many managers are promoted into their leadership roles because they were really good at their last job. Just because you were fabulous at making widgets doesn't mean that you have the skills and abilities to now lead a team of people making widgets. It's a whole new skill set. So let's set these people up for success and give them the training that they require.

Education & Discussion: Without a trusting environment there will be no discussion. If an employee knows that he or she will be ridiculed or discriminated against, there is no way that they will divulge that they have a mental illness. Zero chance. It's the employer's accountability to educate managers and employees about mental health issues: how to recognize them in yourself and in your colleagues and how to support someone with mental illness.

Programs: I would wager that almost every organization with an HR department has a policy or process in place to handle disability leaves, return to work plans, and accommodation requests. How many have robust preventative programs in place so that those other policies aren't as necessary? Significantly fewer, I am certain. Invest in prevention to mitigate the risk of bigger problems down the road.

Yes, this topic is a big deal. It's a big deal and a big problem because we let it get this way, slowly but surely. As I said earlier, the mountain is not insurmountable. In fact, I think we can reduce that mountain to a molehill.

KB xo

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