Conversations about mental health can lead to meaningful cultural shifts, writes Lindsay Hill.
If I’d stopped to think about it, I would never have done it. It was early 2010. The Toronto Transit Commission was hearing submissions on the issue of suicide in the subway system. I’m a lawyer; this was just another speech, meticulously drafted, rational, full of logic and statistics to hide behind. Of course, it was written entirely in the third person. I stood up, looked at the practiced expressions of polite interest on the faces in front of me, and made a split-second decision that changed my life.
I set aside my speech, and took the Commissioners back to the day that I stood in the terrible silence of a crowded subway platform and felt absolutely compelled to take that final, tragic step. I wanted them to understand why it was so critical to have a way for people like me to reach out in a time of distress. I wanted them to be uncomfortable, and empathetic and determined to take action.
The Commissioners were empathetic, and they did take action. Crisis Link, a partnership between the TTC, Bell Canada and Distress Centres of Toronto that provides a counselling hotline on every subway platform, was born.
That day at City Hall, I didn’t stick around for the rest of the committee meeting. Overwhelmed by emotion and the realization of what I had just done, I fled the room—and ran straight into a wall of journalists brandishing microphones.
The next morning, it seemed that everyone in my neighbourhood had read the paper or watched the news. In my son’s schoolyard, people I chatted with every day turned away, not knowing what to say to me. It was only after I got home that the phone rang. Then the doorbell. The conversations were similar. “Me, too…,” “My sister…,” “My father…”. It seemed that everyone knew someone who was dealing with a mental illness, or was coping with one personally.
Over the next few years, I gave speeches and media interviews talking about my experiences with severe depression and suicidal thoughts. I’m still an intensely private person, and uncomfortable with showing the emotions that always break through when I’m speaking, but it was worth it because there was always someone who sidled up to me afterwards and whispered “Can we talk?” One day, I realized that something wonderful was happening. People were less furtive. They weren’t whispering to me any more. They were starting a conversation. They didn’t approach me in the washroom after carefully checking we were alone; they walked up to me as I left the podium. Recently, I gave a speech to 300 government employees—and afterwards, a long, tidy line formed while audience members waited patiently to talk openly about their mental health issues, seemingly unconcerned by the presence of their co-workers.
The symptoms of my mental illness terrify me. Even talking about them is frightening. It’s especially uncomfortable to talk about suicide—but as more people talk about mental illness, it’s getting easier. People are starting to understand that mental illness isn’t just something that happens to someone else. They are recognizing that someone they care about may be affected. When we talk about these difficult issues, we aren’t just reducing stigma in some abstract, public-interest, feel-good way. We are making it possible for someone you know to have the courage to say “something doesn’t feel right,” and find the help they need in their recovery. We are becoming a society that wants an honest answer when we ask a friend, “is everything okay?” We are learning that the hardships that accompany a mental illness are easier to bear when information and facts replace assumptions and fear.
Wherever conversations happen—in homes, schools, workplaces, coffee shops, arenas, places of worship—mental illness is dragged a little further out of the shadowy corners of our lives. In any conversation, it’s extremely likely that one person has lived experience of a mental illness, or knows someone who does. So, it’s easy to say to those dealing with a mental illness that they are not alone. The frequently cited statistic that “one in 5 Canadians will be affected at some point in their lifetime” is hugely important, but it may not offer much comfort to the person who happens to be a “one”.
When my brain chemistry has me absolutely convinced that I am alone, that I deserve to be, and that I always will be, what is it that gives me a reason to hang on until things improve—even when improvement seems an impossibility? My family, my friends…and the hundreds of strangers who have had the strength to ask me, “Can we talk?”
Lindsay Hill is a Toronto lawyer and advocate for mental health issues.