When I was small, my father was hospitalized and diagnosed with Bi-Polar Disorder (known as Manic-Depression in those days). That year, Christmas didn’t come to our house – the tree stayed outside, bare and forgotten, propped against the side of the house where my father left it when he brought it home. My mother broke down in tears in the kitchen and, in a short time, we were surrounded by faces we knew but who didn’t usually visit. They spoke in soothing tones and did their best to pretend everything was okay. But it wasn’t. And it wouldn’t be for a very long time.
We visited my father in St Patrick’s Hospital in Dublin where he was seen by Dr. Anthony Clare, a well-known Irish psychiatrist, author and broadcaster. From that day on, whenever my mother served waffles for dinner, my sister and I would place a pea in one of the square indents and say it was “Daddy in the hospital”.
Hospitals in those days weren’t easy places for children to be. While my mother spoke to our somnolent father, my sister and I amused ourselves with the snooker table – trying to mimic what we’d seen on the television – until a nurse stopped us, saying we might tear the baize (we were clueless what THAT meant) and gave us a deck of cards instead. Just four and seven, we didn’t have a clue what to do with them.
Years passed and so did other hospitalizations. Our home bore the subtle signs – a child’s wood-frame chair with a black and yellow woven seat, a tray with a picture of two smiling dogs with a woven border. I was familiar with the raffia-work products of occupational therapy long before I heard the “basket-case” jokes as an adult. My mother told me about my father’s illness when I was thirteen, but I was left with more questions than answers. I wasn’t sure which parts of his behaviour were the illness and which were him. With no Internet, there was nowhere I could turn to for advice and support.
I suppose that’s why I’m so amazed at the work Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences does to dissolve the invisible wall between itself and the local community. It’s a public hospital situated in leafy grounds down on the lakeshore, where many in the neighbourhood go to enjoy nature and exercise. It provides a range of specialized assessment and treatment services to those living with complex and serious mental illness and they constantly hold regular events that bring townsfolk in; reducing that fear of the unknown, smashing stigma and humanizing those they treat in the eyes of the wider world. They provide an opportunity for people to ask questions that doesn’t often arise in everyday life and with one in five Canadians affected by mental health issues, that’s important.
Just last weekend, we went to the Free Family Movie afternoon there to see “Rise of the Guardians.” Thanks to the purpose-built auditorium even the smallest among us had no problem seeing the screen (although she did come close to being eaten by the cinema-style seat!). Afterwards, while lucky raffle winners collected their prizes, we did some cookie decorating (and eating) and there were printouts of the movie characters to colour in. Delicious pastries and cream cakes were provided so the adults weren’t tempted to steal the kids creations, along with juice, coffee and fresh fruit.
While the children burned off their sugar-high running in circles in the art gallery, I spoke to Sandy Ravary, teacher, event organizer and “lifelong learner”, and asked her how she knows this community-focused strategy works. “We see the change in people’s faces when they come here for the first time… sometimes in just a few minutes.” There’s a visible relaxing, a letting go of negative preconceptions.
The centre runs events that target both corporate and community audiences, to maximise the potential for reducing stigma. Canadian communications giant, Bell is just one company that’s been in the spotlight recently for its work supporting a national awareness campaign that promotes greater recognition and openness about mental illness. Little by little, we’re chipping away at that old mindset.
As Winter fades to a memory here in Ontario, we’re already looking forward to the centre’s annual summer Mindful Music Festival. For us, it’s become a family tradition. Hopefully, by the time my kids are grown, it’ll be a lot easier to talk about mental illness than it was when I was small.