So you want to talk about mental health


Have you caught that show on cable lately about mental health and the chick doing the interviews is like mentally ill? Not like sittin naked in the bath tub rubbing feces on herself but like legit PTSD. She had a kid that died I think or some shit like her Dad didn’t hug her enough. She used to be my roommate so I overheard her on the phone talking about it.

That’s how we talk about mental illness. Those are direct quotes from different people. 

I published a book about how I “got” PTSD and my mother-in-law posted a review on Amazon that said anything negative in there about her was due to my mental illness making me remember stuff wrong.

That’s how we talk about mental illness.

When a guy back in Newfoundland started a charity for mental health I sat my oldest son down and told him all about it. He wanted to know what mental illness meant and I said it’s like stuff in your mind that you can’t help, like being sad but for no reason, or worrying all the time when there’s nothing to worry about. He thought about it for a second or two and then looked up at me with those eyes he got from me and said Mom do you have a mental illness?

Yes honey I do but if it can be broken, it can be fixed. And I’m working on it. That’s why I do yoga and why I meditate and why I go talk to a doctor and do Reiki and why we all talk about our feelings in our family. 

Okay cool Mom. I love you. Can I go play Wii U now?

That’s how we talk about mental illness in my house.

Recently we were at a concert and my son got pulled up on stage by his musical hero. He stole the show with his enthusiasm and honesty. The crowd laughed and clapped again and again and it felt like it lasted an hour. It was a little more than a minute and when he came back to his seat he was ecstatic.  And then a few minutes later that big bottom lip that he got from me was quivering and his eyes were all watery. I asked him what was wrong and he hugged me for all he was worth and said “I don’t know Mom, I was happy and then I started thinking about bad stuff. Like that game I lost and I should have told that guy that I wanted you to come up there with me because he’s YOUR favourite singer.”

Luckily I had just read a meme on Facebook about your brain playing tricks on you when you feel too good. I had been reading this other more in depth book called “Make the Leap” and there was a big section on times when you shit on your own happiness. It’s as though there’s an upper limit on happy and your mind starts picking away when you reach that imaginary line. I held his little face and yelled over the music “You have my permission to enjoy this. It’s okay to be happy. I wouldn’t trade what happened to you tonight for a single second. It made me happy to see you happy. So just enjoy this for a while longer.”

We did a few breathing exercises and I hugged him a million more times and we danced like only Newfoundlanders can - half crying and half laughing, vacillating between depression and ecstatic joy and wanting to go home to get some sleep and never wanting the night to end.

This is how we talk about mental illness at a concert.

That same week I attended the ECMAs to do a feature on their Mental Wellness Center. The awards have been around now for 30 years but never before have they had services on site for mental wellness. There was yoga and acupuncture and massage and a keynote speech on taking the weirdness away from mental illness.

Last year there was a musician on the US side that did a sold out show and went back to his hotel room, said goodnight to his wife and kids over the phone and hung himself. It was the first I had heard of that direct of a correlation between music and mental illness.

The news about the ECMAs wellness center seemed directly linked to that story at least in my mind.
I wanted to talk to the people who had made the decision to include the ‘mental health services’ but they were unavailable for comment. I was told I could wait around and grab one of the executives on the committee after the awards show on the last night but by then I was all out of the creative pluck I’d need to approach a stranger, introduce myself, explain my project and then ask for a heart to heart chat about mental illness.

So I came away with what I had managed to put together in my three days in Halifax. I spoke to the volunteer coordinator who had not heard about the extra training that was supposed to be provided for the ECMA front line folks to spot a mental crisis. I met a volunteer who had filled in well beyond the shifts she had originally agreed to and was still smiling even though she had not been able to partake in the wellness offerings. I sat down with the coordinator of the wellness center who had been teaching yoga nonstop all weekend and was planning to treat herself to a float in a sensory deprivation tank to decompress from the hectic week……of…..teaching…nonstop…..yoga…at a music conference.

I met a musician who was thrilled about the new initiative and disclosed that a friend of his arrived at the conference, had an anxiety attack and stayed in his hotel for two days, missing meetings and completely unable to function. I met another musician who sat through over an hour long interview with me and as we were getting up to leave, in true doorknob confessional fashion blurted out “Pfft, mental wellness….I’ve been seeing a professional therapist since I was 11.”

One of my interviews was with a musician who toured with the late great Ron Hynes. I knew Ron about as well as most and I knew he went to rehab years ago and wrote an entire album when he got out. It was my least favourite of all his work. I remember a fellow fan touching my arm back then when we got the news that he almost died and his family had forced him into a program – she said, “It’s terrible I know but can you imagine the music that’s going to come out of this.”

Fucking parasite. That’s what we all are. Parasites.

Ron’s former band mate looked as if I had punched him when I brought up the wellness center and whether it’s current format would have ever helped someone like Ron. Eventually he came around and said you know, Ron should be here. But who the hell are we to force anyone to confront their issues. Maybe he would have gone to someone and asked for help here at the ECMAs but I doubt it.

The most eye opening and genuine conversation happened with the keynote speaker. He is a musician/recreation therapist who made a documentary about something he tried to do to combat his PTSD symptoms.

It didn’t work. He still has PTSD. He’s trying to raise a family, still hesitates to identify as a person who has PTSD for fear that that is all people will see and we were finishing each other’s sentences. He got it. He got me. I felt like I got him too at least a little bit. I don’t think we mentioned the ECMAs or the wellness center. We just talked like a couple of people who were prone to PTSD because of our childhoods (our words, nobody else’s) and then something horrific happened. For him, it was watching his friend die doing something they both loved. For me it was carrying my middle son for seven weeks knowing he would probably be dead when he came out and then holding his tiny still body beside me for hours before finally letting the nurse take him to the morgue.

So we all have our demons.

There were moments of pure human connection when I was out shooting my little mental health show. You probably can’t see them because my filming and editing skills haven’t caught up with my creative vision yet but that’s something I’m working on.

Talking about mental health is all the rage now but putting a hashtag on your selfie doesn’t make you deeper or more tolerant or even someone anyone wants to talk to when they’re struggling.  Share your own goddamned story. Stop saying you feel bad for people. Put your phone down. Shut up ‘talking about mental illness’ for a minute and be real.

That’s a terrifying idea right? What if we all took a picture of our messy living rooms or the projects we never finished. Or snap a picture of our kid’s scared faces when we yelled so loud they cried…..there’s a funny meme going around about how we become that person sometimes when the wine runs out…..hahaha! alcoholism – that’s even funnier.

Let’s talk is not a fucking hashtag. Start talking. I dare you. I encourage you. I'm listening. Are you?