This feat is a bit of a “cheat” since it is not a completely novel experience. I have been volunteering with the Canadian Mental Health Association – Niagara Branch Speakers’ Bureau since 2008. However, for someone who lives with and speaks about mental illness, both my own and that of my older son, every talk is a feat in and of itself; two of the most difficult situations are rolled together as the inherently anxiety-producing public speaking focuses on personal stories about a very stigmatized topic.
The other novelty of this talk is its emphasis not on my experiences living with mental illness, but as the parent of a young adult son who is dealing with his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. It is only the second time I have spoken from this perspective; the first time was at last year’s Speak OUT event that was accompanied by an article my son and I participated in for the St. Catharines Standard (http://www.stcatharinesstandard.ca/2014/10/22/mom-students-to-talk-about-mental-illness). In the year since that article was published, we have continued our journey together, punctuated by ups and downs along the way.
The other part of the feat was that I was given the privilege to present as part of a panel of courageous, amazing students who told their own stories of challenges with mental illness including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder. In advance of the evening event, the four of us met and shared a little about our experiences with each other and I felt an immediate kinship with them. Brett and Steph are undergraduate students who, despite significant challenges, convey a message of positivity, hope, and resilience. Lauren, a fellow graduate student at Brock, was someone I knew from participating in her Master’s research about individuals living well with mental illness. She is currently working on her PhD in the area, further exploring the model she developed in her Master’s thesis in partnership with the mental health unit at the Niagara Health System. She is also a participant in her own research, living with her own mental illness while she completes her academic studies.
The event included a short presentation from each of us about our experiences, a panel discussion answering some common questions about stigma and stress as well as ideas regarding how to support family, friends, or colleagues who may be dealing with mental health challenges and, how to maintain self-care in these supportive roles. Questions from the audience and the online viewers rounded out the night.
Reading this blog, you might wonder why anyone would choose to expose their personal struggles to 100 strangers (not to mention the faceless audience who joined us through online live stream). My fellow presenters expressed reasons that mirror my own: if one person can be reassured, supported, encouraged to seek help, or just feel less alone as a result of hearing our stories, we are more than compensated for any discomfort we may feel. I was especially impressed by the maturity displayed by these students in their 20’s and early 30’s who were, as I told them, decades ahead of me in their ability to embrace their mental health challenges and work to help others.
The end of the night was punctuated by individuals who approached us to thank us for speaking out; they share their own stories – some tears were shed and many hugs given and received.
As I walked to my car, I called Christian to tell him about the experience. I told him that I had updated my speech just before the presentation to include the most recent update to our journey which had occurred the very morning of the event when Christian decided he was ready to access supports through the Canadian Mental Health Association – Niagara Branch. The smile on his face when he emerged from his intake meeting was the only confirmation I needed to reaffirm that the timing of events is often not coincidental. As I told the audience, it was a new ray of hope in a world where we must never give up hope.
I am dedicating this feat to Brett, Steph, and Lauren who reminded me that the courage of good people is all we need to change the world. For those who may not have had the opportunity to attend or watch Speak OUT online, the recorded event is available at: http://brockvideocentre.brocku.ca/videos/video/189/
Next up: returning to the other side of the table: my job search