By Amanda Jetté Knox
Lisa MacDougal* dreads school mornings. “It’s like running a marathon every day before 8 a.m.,” says the Gatineau mother of four. “Getting a typical kid ready is hard enough. But getting Maya* ready is much more challenging.”
Nine-year-old Maya suffers from an anxiety disorder, one of the most common mental illnesses faced by Canadians. “She has good days and bad days,” explains her mother. “But school is a trigger for her. The kids will miss the bus more often than not because I’m still trying to convince Maya to get out of bed. We’re all late; we’re all stressed out. My kids’ teachers say their lateness disrupts the entire classroom. It’s affecting everybody.”
The MacDougals’ morning mayhem is just one example of the ripple effect caused by mental illness.
Donna Horner, an outpatient social worker at the Royal Ottawa Hospital, stresses that mental health is a community issue. “No person is an island. When someone has a mental illness, it can affect their friends, family members, neighbours and colleagues. It touches many lives.”
Cynthia Clark agrees. She is chair of the Royal’s family council and mother to a mentally ill child. “We don’t realize exactly how many lives are touched by mental illnesses, so we’re under the false impression that it doesn’t affect everyone,” she points out.“There are huge costs to society.”
But if mental illness is a societal issue, it continues to be one that isn’t readily discussed or understood. “There’s a lot more media focus on mental health. However in spite of that, some stigma remains,” concedes Horner. “People may not always come forward and talk to their employer or even family and friends. They may worry that others will be uneasy around them or wouldn’t understand.”
A 2008 report from the Canadian Medical Association supports Horner’s observations. It showed that, while 72 percent of Canadians would disclose a cancer diagnosis to a friend, only 50 percent would reveal they have a family member with mental health issues. With 20 percent of the population experiencing mental illness in their lifetime, this may be the least talked about health crisis out there. It begs the question: if people are afraid or embarrassed to talk about mental illness, what does this mean for families trying to cope with it?
Christina Rhodes* knows firsthand how isolating it can be to grow up with a mentally ill parent. Her mother suffers from Bipolar II. “My mom has been ill my entire life. It affected me in ways I still can’t begin to understand,” she says.
Her mother would suffer delusions during relapses, becoming convinced her husband was evil. She would tell the children to stay away from their father, that he was a “bad man.” One day, a young Christina came home to find her mother physically assaulting her father. She called her grandmother, who sent the police. “That wasn’t the first or the last time [the police would take my mom away].” The memories are still painful for Rhodes, who is now in her 20s. “The only way to get my mom help was when she was a threat to herself or others, and even then she had to be taken away in a cop car.”
While she was well most of the time, her mother’s episodes would last several months and send the family into a tailspin. Throughout, Rhodes felt alone. “I had no one to confide in, no one that understood what my home life was like. I had a few friends. I never really got close with them because I didn’t know how. I grew up lacking some pretty serious social skills, and at 26, I’m still trying to figure a lot of them out.”
Maya, too, has a harder time making and keeping friends. “There are some days when she just can’t bring herself to go out and play, or stay for a sleepover. Her anxiety overwhelms her, and not every young kid is equipped to understand or support her in this,” explains her mother.
MacDougal expresses similar feelings from a parent’s point of view. When her daughter has a bad anxiety day, even fifteen minutes of homework can take hours to complete—if it gets completed at all. But she insists Maya isn’t being defiant. “It can be isolating. People close to us have said some really ignorant and hurtful things. They think that if we just discipline her better she wouldn’t act the way she does. They don’t understand that this is a health issue, not a behaviour issue.”
Horner says that one way families can feel less isolated is to find support through community services, such as the Royal’s family education series, offered free of charge to residents on both sides of the river. “Even if people coming to the family group know a lot about symptoms and treatments, just being with other people who are in similar situations [can be] very enlightening and empowering. I remember somebody saying that simply being able to talk about something that’s going on and seeing the understanding nod from everybody else is a huge relief.”
Talking about mental illness is an important first step, both for those directly dealing with it and for the community at large. “When people are talking [about mental health], there’s going to be more acknowledgement, more understanding of the largeness of the need. Then the resources will follow to meet the need,” says Clark. “It’s good that we’re talking about this, but we need more services. The waiting lists are long.” Stephanie Brooks, a social worker who co-facilitates family support groups at the Royal Ottawa Hospital, stresses the importance of self-care when dealing with your own mental health issues or those of a loved one. “Mental illness is not a sprint, this is a lifelong battle. You can’t help anyone if you don’t take care of yourself.”
Learning how the mental health system works is another crucial step. “Part of taking care of yourself is to get informed, get educated. Learn the system and how it works. It’s complicated and frustrating to navigate, so find someone who can help you do it,” says Brooks.
Maya has been on public waiting lists for several months. In the meantime, the MacDougal family is paying out of pocket for private therapy. They are, however, considering joining a support group. “It would be nice to connect with other families,” says Lisa. “And I would love for Maya to meet other children like her so she can feel less alone.”
Rhodes wishes she could reassure every child dealing with mental illness at home. “I want to say, ‘It will be okay one day. You’re strong to be going through [this], and there are people that can help you. Ask for help. Tell someone you’re sad and hurting and confused.’ Sometimes all a child needs is to be held and told everything is going to be okay.”
For more information: The Royal’s family education and support groups: www.theroyal.ca/en/events/family-information-andsupport-groups/
*Names changed to protect privacy.
How to recognize and deal with a mental health crisis
Suicide accounts for 16 percent of deaths in Canadians aged 16 to 44, with more than 90 percent of the victims having had a diagnosable mental illness. It is, by far, the most common mental health crisis.
While it’s a difficult subject to broach, Stephanie Brooks, a social worker at the Royal Ottawa Hospital, suggests people have an open discussion with the loved one they’re concerned about. “Sometimes it’s important to ask, ‘Are you feeing suicidal? Are you feeling like hurting yourself? What would you like me to do? Can we talk about it?’ A lot of times this can open up a dialogue.”
The more informed and educated family members are, the better they can support their loved one through a crisis. Donna Horner, co-facilitator of the Royal’s family information and education series, recommends reading up on mental illness, going to reputable websites and attending support groups. “We certainly find [it helps to] learn as much as you can about the illness. Learn about possible triggers, coping strategies, and any early warning signs to watch for,” she says. By doing so, family members can equip themselves with the tools and information needed to better recognize and manage a crisis situation.
Some potential indicators of suicidal thoughts:
• Withdrawal and social isolation
• Feelings of hopelessness
• Negative statements such as:
“I’m tired of being a burden.”
“Life isn’t worth living.”
“I feel like it’s never going to get better.”
• Giving away possessions
• Getting personal affairs in order
If you feel you or a loved one is in crisis, there are many resources that can help:
eMentalHealth.ca is an extensive Canadian website containing referral services, legal information, screening tools and much more.
The Ontario Mental Health Helpline provides free, confidential information to those with mental health issues and their loved ones. Call 1 866 531-2600 or chat with an information and referral specialist on the website at www.mentalhealthhelpline.ca.
The Crisis Line (www.crisisline.ca) is a service available 24/7 to individuals and their families experiencing a mental health crisis. Trained volunteers provide support, screening, referrals, assessment and suicide intervention. Dial 613 722-6914 in Ottawa and 1 866 996-0991 outside Ottawa. The Royal Ottawa Hospital offers counselling, support groups and seminars for those with mental illness and their loved ones. More information can be found at www.TheRoyal.ca or by calling 613 722-6521 (toll free: 1 800 987-6424).
Most importantly, if someone is in immediate danger, do not hesitate to call 9-1-1 or take him or her to the nearest hospital emergency department.