An anniversary

Hello, Internet, today is Wednesday, August 9th, 2017, and 10 years ago today, I lost one of my very best friends to suicide.

The man who left my life – and the lives of so many others who loved him – suffered from a severe mental illness. There were, I believe, a number of other factors in his decision to end his life, but difficulty in accessing mental health care, and his need to keep the whole thing a secret, were the main players.

The early drafts of Give Me Back were an exorcism of my grief. As anyone who was with me in the development stages of the play can tell you, I couldn’t get through a session without crying. In 2012 – 5 years after the fact – we held a 3-day workshop of the play and I cried every day. I wrote new pages with tears streaming down my face. My dramaturge (who was marvelous) assured my readers, on my behalf, that my weeping was not about the notes they were offering me, and assured me that my emotional connection to the play was a strength and not a weakness.

Still, working on Give Me Back carries with it an emotional burden that regularly flattens me. Delivering this show to audiences is one of my very favourite things to do, but it drops my personal productivity down to almost nothing. Laundry does not get done. Dishes do not get washed. I require far more sleep every night and at least one nap in the day. I eat from stress, or I don’t eat at all. This is why, sometimes, I need to push it onto the back burner (or farther back, maybe even into the fridge to be dealt with in a few weeks or months). This is very likely why it took me 7 years to mount it at all.

In Give Me Back, Anna and Jonathan have this conversation by phone:

ANNA: It’s not depression, is it?
JONATHAN: What?
ANNA: It’s not depression. You have something else.
JONATHAN: No.
ANNA: Yes you do.
[…]
ANNA: Do you have schizophrenia?
Silence.
JONATHAN: That’s what they’re treating.

That interchange is an almost exact transcription from life. I was in a introductory psychology class at university and I figured it out, and then I asked. That’s how I found out. Most other people in his life, even the ones he trusted most, thought he had a depressive disorder.

After his death, I discovered just how rare the knowledge of his actual diagnosis was: his best friend had no idea, and years later I found out his brother didn’t know.

Sometimes I tell this story in Give Me Back talkback, and during this latest trip to Twillingate and New World Island (communities mourning a very recent death by suicide), I felt it again for the hundredth time: not being able to tell anyone about one of the most important parts of your life is isolating. And, separately, mental illness is isolating. And all research points to there being huge mental health benefits to having strong social supports, but if these two factors are constantly isolating you, maintaining social supports is difficult.

We, the average non-doctor, non-researcher, can’t do very much about the isolation resulting directly from mental illness (although, we can ask our elected officials to dedicate resources to effective mental health treatment, and we should, every day… more on that later). But we can do something about the stigma.

Things are changing. We no longer whisper the names of mental health care facilities in case someone might hear. Large corporations have made stigma-busting part of their ongoing marketing campaigns. But there is a long way to go.

In any given year, 1 out of every 5 Canadians will personally deal with a mental health problem. 20% of us… each year. Every single person in this country will be affected directly or indirectly by mental illness. That’s too many people not to be talking about it.

So, today, 10 years of real progress later, I would like to make a request: if it within your capacity to do something to make the world better for those struggling with their mental health, do it today. Right now, as soon as you read this.

Some suggestions:

  1. Write a letter to your MP or provincial representative. Find out their official policy on mental health and press them to improve it or act on it.
  2. Make a donation to the Canadian Mental Health Association, which works throughout Canadian communities to build and distribute mental health supports and resources.
  3. Reach out to somebody you know who is feeling a bit down recently, and just say hi. Not “hey, I was just wondering how your mental health was,” but just “hi.” Maybe “how are you?” Work today to make yourself a trustworthy, supportive, nonjudgmental friend.

Go! Make the world better. In memory of a person I was lucky to know, and who I wish many more people could have known. Please.

Thank you.