Windsor family physician Pat Smith knows first hand the frustration of watching a loved one struggle with mental health issues. He’s lost a few patients and friends but, when his family was rocked by suicide twice, he knew something had to be done to give those struggling with mental illness some help.
His niece, Sophie Smith, and nephew, Jeff Smith, both committed suicide within a couple of years. The frustrating part, said Smith, was both had sought help, but the system seemed to let them down.
Sophie had bipolar disorder and suffered from anxiety and an eating disorder. She was put on medication, but it ended up making her gain weight. For a girl with an eating disorder, weight gain crushed her.
“She cut her hair and just was really unhappy with herself,” he said. “She seemed like she was trying to get better. But maybe she wasn’t perfectly compliant with the medication. She went up to Muskoka and was really manic. She canoed across a lake and then climbed to the top of the mountain where she jumped off, committing suicide.”
His nephew, Jeff, struggled with the death of his sister. He also suffered from a brain injury. He was hospitalized and convinced the staff he just wanted to go home for the weekend. At home he went to the basement and hung himself.
“So that was happening and then it was so frustrating talking to people and trying to get them in for mental health care,” Smith said. “It hasn’t gotten any better in our city. You can’t get ahold of a psychiatrist.”
A transitional stability centre which Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare set up and operates and is located on Ouellette Avenue, makes it easier, but Smith said not enough funding is going help for children and adolescents with mental health issues.
“There’s a lot of proof that if you work with kids and detect mental illness at a younger age and deal with it, the hope is that you’ll decrease their risk of mental illness or suicide as they are older,” he said.
Four years ago, Smith started Stigma Enigma to raise local awareness and provide more help to youth facing a mental health crisis. He approached Connie Martin, executive director at Maryvale Windsor, which deals with children’s mental illnesses.
“We raise money for Maryvale,” Smith said. “The reason is it goes directly to the front line. It goes to the councillors. I’ve been on the board of other mental health associations and a lot of them stockpile their fundraising or charity money and they don’t directly deliver it to the front line or the patients. At Maryvale, we’ve seen it go to the frontline with the extra councillors they’ve hired.”
Stigma Enigma holds two events to raise money. One is the annual Freeds Tip Off basketball tournament for 300 high school students in November. It fulfils one of the group’s goals, which is to provide mental health education to local youth and reduce the risk they’ll develop a mental illness or contemplate suicide.
“We are making a big difference with the stigma (surrounding mental health issues). We are starting to overcome it,” Smith said.
“It’s not a weakness, it’s an illness. And when people realize it’s not anything wrong with your character and you’re not weak and people starting coming forward and treating it that way, they are more likely to get help right away and talk to people about how they are feeling.”
Four-time Canadian Olympian Silken Laumann will be the guest speaker at Stigma Enigma’s Mingle for Mental Health. Laumann shattered her leg in a rowing accident just 10 weeks before the 1992 Olympics opened. Twenty-seven days later — after five operations and countless hours of rehabilitation — she rowed her way to a bronze medal. In 2014, MacLean’s magazine interviewed Laumann about her struggles with anorexia, cutting herself and her troubled abusive mother.
The Mingle for Mental Health is being health Nov. 11, starting at 5:30 p.m., at the Caboto Club. Tickets cost $150 per person or $1,300 for a table of 10 and can be purchased by contacting Medical Cosmetics at 519-819-1119 or Maryvale at 519-258-0484. More information is available on Stigma Enigma’s website.