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Stigma Enigma

Five Years of Mental Health Awareness in Windsor-Essex
Author: Tita Kyrtsakas
Photographer: Syx Langemann
5 years ago
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When I was in grade 12, two of my classmates, a pair of twin sisters, gave a presentation on mental health and the word “stigma.” I sat there bewildered. I had no idea what this word meant and was amazed that my two friends did; I had also never heard anyone speak openly about mental health.

This was only seven years ago.

The same month I graduated high school in June 2011, the Ontario government released a document that addressed mental health and addiction for recognition in the classroom. Today this document is called Supporting Minds, and is a comprehensive text that aids teachers in early intervention and offers resources for classroom use. This text is available online, and as I’m finishing my second year in the education program at the University of Windsor, I realize the importance of utilizing this document.

My high school cohort, and all the ones before me, never had education on our mental health. It’s today’s youth who are encouraged to reach out and ask for help, to be honest about how they’re feeling. However, even with this progress, there is still a stigma surrounding mental health.

“Stigma” is defined as a mark of disgrace. Mental health is stigmatized. People are still plagued to talk about their mental health because it’s not something you can see, like a sprained ankle. There’s no quick fix. The generations before us, including mine, never spoke about our mental health, meaning the vast majority of the population still sees mental illness as something shameful. So where do we start to break down these walls?

Enter Dr. Patrick Smith

Dr. Patrick Smith

Dr. Patrick Smith

In 2013, Smith started a group called Stigma Enigma to increase awareness of mental healthcare in Windsor-Essex. Smith, a general practitioner, lost both his niece and nephew, Sophie and Geoff Smith, to suicide. He’s also lost friends and patients over the years and the heartbreak was mounting. It was at Geoff’s wake that Smith’s friend, the late Honourable Paul Joseph French, expressed his anger and frustration towards the lack of understanding and recognition of mental health. Dr. Smith and French promised to start working towards educating the public on mental health care.

Each year, Stigma Enigma hosts an event, Mingle for Mental Health, to bring the community together for an evening of educating and fundraising. Past speakers have included Silken Laumann, Margaret Trudeau, Dave Bing, Eric Hipple, Michael Landsberg, Aisha Alfa, Jordan Smith, Eddie Murray, and Ted Ball

This year, Ginger Zee, Good Morning America’s chief meteorologist, will make her way to Windsor to speak about her own struggles with depression. When I first saw the poster for the event, I couldn’t believe the woman I watched growing up, telling me and the rest of the world about hurricanes, torrential downpours, or days filled sunshine, struggled with her mental health.

Dr. Smith mirrors my sentiment, saying, “Ginger has a combination of beauty and brains. She’s the whole package, yet how can she struggle from mental illness? When she comes forward, other people can come forward with their problems too. They won’t be as embarrassed.”

I spoke to Ginger Zee on September 10: World Suicide Prevention Day

I told her I’ve watched her since she started at Good Morning America. She’s a woman who lives in New York, who has a fantastic job. I thought her life was perfect because why wouldn’t it be?

Ginger Zee

Ginger Zee

But Zee, 37, says she is the antithesis of who she was at 17. She was so nice to everyone “that it was impossible for me not to be homecoming queen because I needed everybody to love me. So as an adult I was like, listen, your homecoming queen tried to kill herself.”

Zee struggled with anorexia in her teens and her depression was at its highest in her early twenties. Her mom urged her to do in-patient treatments, wanting her daughter to learn skills so that she wouldn’t hurt herself. But Zee consistently told her ‘no.’ She wasn’t ready for help

She was finishing college when she tried to commit suicide. She describes it as feeling “vacant.” Nothing mattered, including herself. It was “like blacking out.” The next morning, she looked at herself in the mirror and she couldn’t believe “the same person did that. I was like ‘what?! What was that?’

“We get in trouble with ourselves, especially with depression. For me the low point was when I shut down, turned internal, and didn’t share what was going on. Saying ‘I have a problem, I need help’—that gets you 50% there. You’ve said it out loud. Now, it can’t sit in there and fester.”

Zee released her first memoir, Natural Disaster: I Cover Them. I Am One, last year. It’s within the honest pages of this book that she reveals there is no perfect when it comes to her life.

“I think most of my career and through my serious struggles, I’ve been two people.” She’s the passionate meteorologist, smiling and informing the public, “covering the storm, the Hurricane Katrinas and the Sandys.” But then she’s the person who has “these internal storms” she continues to fight

“And even though mine’s more public, a lot of people do this, a lot of people have two sides of themselves and it’s their responsibility to put on a face and then they compare themselves to the next face. And that weighs on you. Especially on young people.”

In addition to understanding our own mental health, Zee wants us to be able to understand “the mental health of others around you and the responsibilities of what our actions and words do.” It’s in open conversations, where we silence our judgment, in which people can begin to share their stories and nurture human connection

Since writing her book, people she’s worked with for years have confided in her. “This type of opening up has actually opened me up in ways I couldn’t have imagined and it’s allowed me to have really frank conversations with people that I had no idea had the same experience I did.”

So what techniques does

she use?

Every morning during her drive to work (she gets picked up), she meditates for about 10 minutes to get focused for the day.

When there’s a moment where she starts to feel overwhelmed, she asks herself, “is this going to matter tomorrow?” If the answer is yes, she asks if it’s going to matter a week from now. If it’s still yes, she’s asks if it’s going to matter a year from now

“If it’s yes at the end of the third question, I’m allowed to put emotion towards it and allowed to feel all the frustration and anger. If it’s not going to matter tomorrow, I let it go.”

Before therapy, she also absorbed people’s negative emotions around her and then she would spiral down

“I’ve created this fence, an actual boundary I put up in my mind, and I say to myself, that’s them, those are their emotions, and I have to keep myself out of it. I can be upset for them, especially if I had something to do with that anger. I can tell them that I’m sorry that they’re feeling that way, but I do not need to take that on because then we’re both going down.”

These mental exercises help regulate her emotions, and it’s just like doing push-ups, but for your brain. As a young girl, Zee explains, “I learned how to throw a football, and play basketball, and soccer, but didn’t learn how to check my own emotions.” She believes she could have been taught these tools as a child in school and at home, to promote her emotional health. But she knows them now, and she’s hopeful and realistic about her progress.

“I don’t think depression goes away. I don’t think I’m cured right now. You learn how to live with it, you learn how to be honest with yourself and that’s where healing is and that’s where the healthiest place for me has been. It’s been in the past couple of years, and that happens to come along with children and a husband.”

And if she could speak to her younger self?

“You have no idea what great things can come ahead of you. I know today sucks and I know you feel like the last five years have been horrible, and there were times where five full years in a row were just horrible, but storms don’t last forever. Clouds don’t last forever; that’s not how the atmosphere works. That’s not how life works. There will be sunshine and then there will be clouds again. I’m realistic about that because that’s how our planet works and that’s how life works.”

After my conversation with Zee, I’m amazed by her courage of coming forward about her mental health struggles because of the stigma that still thrives on misconception and unawareness. Zee hopes that one day we can “get to the place where we’re talking about it daily, where you hear about it just as much as we talk about cancer. Where people can say, ‘today is the day where I can ask for help.’”

Dr. Jennifer Grbevski

Dr. Jennifer Grbevski

Dr. Jennifer Grbevski, one of the twins who first taught me about stigma, is in her first year of residency through Western Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry and is working towards fighting the stigma. She’s becoming a psychiatrist and she is also the recipient of the Sophie Smith Scholarship—an annual grant given to a medical student who plans to stay in Windsor and practise in our community when their residency is complete. Ultimately, the scholarship will bring more practising psychiatrists to our area, which is in desperate need of mental healthcare practitioners due to the long waitlists.

But why are waitlists long and why are we lacking practitioners in this area?

As Dr. Grbevksi explains, psychiatry is not “a flashy field” because psychiatrists are paid on the lower end of the scale. She says, “With psychiatry you can’t do a blood test; you have to use all your senses. It’s not a snap judgment to give a diagnosis. You have to have time, establish a therapeutic relationship so that you can give a full diagnosis. That’s what makes psychiatry also difficult and not as attractive.”

However, the more we talk about our mental health, the more of us realize that we could use the help

“Mental health doesn’t discriminate against race, sex, or socioeconomic status. It affects everybody,” Dr. Grbevski clarifies.

Dr. Smith agrees, explaining, “Everyone would benefit from talking to someone. Mental illness is so common. They say 1 in 5, but there are a lot of people who don’t admit their illness. Same with suicide rates. If there’s a stigma with mental illness, it’s even worse with suicide.”

Originally, the country had “institutions for the chronically mentally ill, like the Lakeshore Psychiatric Unit, and then there was a concept that these weren’t that helpful or they cost too much, and they shut them down and now these people have nowhere to go,” Dr. Smith explains. Many of the homeless we see have mental illness. And being open about mental health is not only a Windsor problem

Dr. Grbevski comments, “It’s a global issue. Speaking to friends from Germany, they tell me the same thing. Adam, my fiancé, is from Sweden, and it’s a problem everywhere.”

One hundred percent of the proceeds from Mingle for Mental Health go to Maryvale, Windsor-Essex’s children’s mental health centre, for the hiring of counsellors. Founded in 1929, the centre sees 800 teens per year, and Maryvale is only centre in the province that has off-site hospital care—nine beds, and 24-hour care from doctors and nurses.

Connie Martin, the executive director, partnered with Dr. Smith five years ago when he heard that layoffs were happening at Maryvale, while the waitlists and the needs of children in emotional despair were on the rise

Connie Martin

Connie Martin

Maryvale is 90% provincially funded and has an official school run through the Greater Essex Country District School Board, so that while children are receiving medical care, they continue with their normal day-to-day lives. Schools and family doctors will normally refer children to Maryvale.

Martin explains, “The most mentally healthy thing to do with a child is keep to their normal routine—they still have to go to school and earn their credits while they learn their triggers and see why their emotions are escalating. We teach them about their own limitations because we’ve all got them.”

Funding from the government has increased only 13% in the last 20 years. She explains, “children’s mental health has no law that it has to be funded whereas children with physical disabilities, cancer, or young offenders have laws that say you are obligated to provide a service if they come to your door. There’s nothing for children’s mental health.”

Maryvale is a part of discretionary funding and it’s up to the government to decide on increases, which is why Mingle for Mental Health is essential for the centre to fund counsellors and support children in the community. With 150 children on the waitlist to see a therapist, this event is more important than ever.

Martin, a social worker, has worked at Maryvale for 35 years and her work there is her passion. What’s changed the most over the years is the research and how people work with children with mental illness. “When I started, people just did what they thought was kind. There wasn’t a lot of research then about effective approaches. Now we have a lot of approaches of how to go about things.”

Dr. Smith sees Maryvale as a place of opportunity to treat children early. Where some are going through temporary problems, others are developing something that may last a lifetime. “At Maryvale, we can catch it early, prevent, and treat at a young age, before it becomes a bigger problem.”

I wonder how Martin works in this environment for so long, seeing the children come and go with their struggles. “You don’t get thicker skin, but you feel for them, and you know it can be changed and if we can get them a little earlier or be around them when they’re that desperate, you change the way they think, and they’ll say years later, ‘this place saved my life.’”

There are other resources in our community, places like the Transitional Stability Centre where people struggling with mental health or addiction can go for services such as skill classes on how to cope with mood or anxiety disorders. There is also the Positive Parenting Program, run at different places in our community, to help parents manage specific problems

Dr. Smith says, “We’re helping the community. I see what amazing work is happening with hospice and cancer in our area, and if we can do that with mental health, that would be amazing.”

If you’re interested in supporting Maryvale, listening to Zee speak and sign copies of her book, meeting others in the community, and enjoying great food and music, Smith promises, “It’s not a downer night. Of course it’s a dark subject, but it’s an uplifting night.”

The event is on November 3, 2018, and tickets are for sale.

Call Maryvale Adolescent Mental Health Centre 519.258.0484 or Riverside Medical Centre 519.819.1119 for more information.

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