No More Stigma-1

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Powerful interview opens an important conversation

It was powerful, moving and important – quite likely the best interview you will hear in 2014.

Back in March, Ted Blades of CBC Radio ‘On the Go’ interviewed Andy Jones and Mary-Lynn Bernard, who in February lost their son, Louis, to mental illness. He may have committed suicide, but it was the mental illness that killed him. This was just one of the points forcefully made during the 38-minute interview.

“I feel personally that Louis would eventually have committed suicide,” Andy said. “I just don’t think he would have lived unless there was some new (treatment).”

You can read an excellent, in-depth summary of that interview – and listen to both interviews – by going here

According to CBC, the above link has been visited by “tens of thousands” of listeners, and was followed by interviews on Here and Now and on the national CBC Radio program The Current… though Ted Blades’s contribution is still the strongest, in my view.

The interview begins with a candid discussion about Louis’s childhood, and how his mental illness took root and sprouted like a dark, angry weed. The couple’s willingness to speak so openly and in such detail about the symptoms of mental illness are relevant to all of us and especially to those who experience similar challenges within their own families.

I will present a few excerpts from the interview; the points that really smacked me across the face and helped me understand mental health issues in a new way.

“The compassion isn’t there for these people who are very sick,” said Mary-Lynn. “There are these wonderful people in the system who work with the mentally ill and they’re very good, but there’s not that same compassion. If someone breaks their leg, and they’re at home and you’re coming in to see them, you do their dishes, you clean their house, you help them. That does not happen in mental health (cases). There’s someone in a bed very sick who can’t get on with his life because of his mental illness…. If you know someone who goes into a hospital because of a mental illness, do you send them flowers? Do you send them chocolates? Not likely. That doesn’t seem to happen. But you do for someone with almost any other kind of illness.”

“If somebody has a mental illness and they are in the hospital, or the psychiatric ward or they are home depressed, they may not want to talk you,” Andy added. “But, you could drop a card off. You call the (ward) and say ‘hi, my friend so-and-so is there and I was just wondering how they are – would you say hello to them for me?’ And if the nurse thought they shouldn’t, then they won’t. But in the meantime if somebody knew there were five calls today wondering how you are, I don’t care what your situation is, that’s going to help you a little bit.”

Even as he blazed through the outermost trails of his illness, the Louis they knew and loved was always present, Andy said.

“I think he was always there. He was 100 per cent there, but there was something… a loud noise in the room… That’s why I think with Louis he did make the decision to take his own life quite rationally, in a way. I think he felt like he could not go on one more day with this condition. I think he didn’t want to (do it). I think he stopped himself, because he knew it would have a bad effect on everybody. He was very aware of the fact he was loved because we told him lots of times… I’m sure he thanked me 50 times in the last couple of years. He’d say ‘dad, thanks for hanging in with me like that… don’t give up on me dad,’ and we’d say ‘we’re never giving up on you, Louis.’ That’s a very important thing: people who are mentally ill are 100 percent there, and 100 percent able to take your love and give it back.”

The Waterford Hospital seldom generates a ‘good news’ story – the building is decrepit and shrouded in that old ‘mental hospital’ stigma – but Andy praised the institution.

“When I first went into the Waterford Hospital with Louis that first time in 2006, I thought, ‘This is the most horrible place in the world.’ By the time we left, I thought, ‘this is one of the most wonderful places in the world.’ … I know people say the Waterford should be blown up and rebuilt – and maybe that is the case, I don't know – but there’s a lot of good stuff that happens inside that hospital, and we experienced that. I think the word ‘Waterford’ should be stricken off the joke list and put on any other ward of the hospital.”

And then there’s ‘slum landlords,’ a group that has been the subject of much media coverage of late, due to bedbugs, poor living conditions and so on. I was surprised when Andy offered them a vigorous defence; or, more precisely, took a smack at the system that makes low-rent landlords necessary.

“The sad thing is that without slum landlords, poor people and people with mental illness would literally be on the street. There should be housing, that is the answer, but in the short term that’s where people have to go.”

Mary-Lynn said the Waterford Hospital needs to re-think its ‘no smoking’ rule, which was introduced more recently. She said they were with Louis the night before he killed himself and he seemed anxious but, when they offered to go to the hospital, he declined – which they took some comfort in at the time.

“Anytime that Louis has needed to go to the hospital he said yes. But he said no. But things have changed at the hospital. You can’t have a cigarette there anymore  - there’s no place. And if you don’t have day privileges you can’t get out to have a cigarette. Louis smoked – he needed his cigarettes. I would say that might have been one of the reasons he said no… These are people who are dealing with incredible stresses in their heads, and if a cigarette is giving them some kind of relief of any kind, well, we should help them. There’s no reason why they can’t build an outside ward to go have a cigarette.”

Near the conclusion, Andy made this heartfelt, heart-breaking plea:

“He suffered so much that no matter how much pain we feel, it’s nothing compared to what he put up with. I didn’t necessarily want to come on the radio and talk about this and I’m finding it very difficult, but I don’t care – because who cares? I just think is there something that can happen, can everybody who is listening say, a) I’ve got to change my attitude towards mental illness and realize that it’s in everybody’s family, and b) I’ve got to do something specific for somebody who has mental illness… The whole society has got to catch up with the other medical disciplines to get enough money and moral support to do some positive research. To me it feels like, compared to people who do heart surgery, mental health is in the 17th century.”

Our family was dealt a crushing blow by mental illness. My late father, Ken Meeker, was afflicted with clinical depression in the prime of his career as a producer and broadcaster with CBC Here and Now. Recently I watched a full-length interview with him from 1984, just before he became depressed. Dad was so confident, so self-assured, so on top of his game. The depression stole all that from him and, though he got his life back eventually, he never did recover the ‘edge’ you see in this interview.  

My Dad’s illness is not a secret – he talked frankly about it with Steve Bartlett, for a page one story in The Express – but I would have divulged it anyway. It’s time we all started having this conversation.

There is no shame. There is no stigma. There is only someone who is ill, who needs our unconditional love and support.

It’s time to shine a light on mental illness, and I will continue doing that in this three-part series. Next, I will speak with a funeral director who has some strong opinions on suicide and mental illness, and then I’ll talk to Andy and Mary-Lynn to get their reactions to what has transpired since going public in such a highly personal way.

In the meantime, if you haven’t heard the Andy Jones and Mary-Lynn Bernard ‘On the Go’ interview, please click the link and listen. You will be moved and will likely shed a tear or two.

You will be shocked at their brutal honesty, and surprised by the points they make so persuasively.

You may even be moved to action, which is exactly what Andy and Mary-Lynn want to see.

 

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