When it comes to mental health in Canada, the gap is still too wide

The story of Clement Gascon, the Supreme Court Justice who bravely went public this week about his mental health struggles is a story we should all pay attention to.

Last week the Justice disappeared for a few hours after suffering a panic attack brought on by a change in medication and the stressors of his job. Thankfully, in this case, this story had a relatively happy ending. He was found and embraced by his community and has received nothing but support since the incident.

Today, the Globe and Mail’s editorial, In Canada, the mental-health gap continues, picked up the story and used this as an occasion to shine a light on the problems that still exist here in Canada when it comes to treatment for mental health issues.

The gaps are significant and go well beyond what is reported in the editorial.

The World Health Organization reports that in low- and middle-income countries, between 76% and 85% of people with mental disorders receive no treatment for their disorder. In high-income countries, between 35% and 50% of people with mental disorders are in the same situation. In today’s Globe and Mail article, a 2016 joint statement on access to mental-health care from the Canadian Medical Association and Canadian Psychiatric Association estimated that, of the 20 per cent of Canadians who suffer from a disorder, fewer than one in three will seek treatment.

Many can’t seek treatment. Unless you are fortunate to have a very good health plan, counselling, which can be as expensive as $200 an hour, is out of reach. Even the medication which really helps people to focus on talk therapy is out of reach for many.

It is good however that at least attitudes are changing. In my own case, my admissions of struggling with anxiety and depression were met with stony silence. I remember actually admitting to a superintendent that my condition could easily be exaggerated by undue stress. She was happy to add the stress but ignored my clear message that this could do harm. For me, this was an unforgivable misstep for someone in a position of authority.

In Canada, we need to realize that the gaps in treatment are wide unless you are well off and well connected. I have been extremely fortunate because I have friends in the medical system and a great drug plan. Most, however, are nowhere near as lucky.

As an administrator, I came in contact with many children and adults who needed really good mental health care. It was rare that they received it and I don’t know how they survived. In a society as rich as ours, there is absolutely no reason why anyone has to suffer from the silent killer of mental illness.

We are, unfortunately, at a downturn in compassion in our society right now. We are going through one of those awful cycles where the artificial budgetary bottom line reigns supreme. This is tragic and people with untreated mental health illnesses will suffer even more than most during these times.

It is really too bad that we need stories like Justice Gascon to remind us how terribly many people suffer in silence. We are a superficial society that rarely takes the time to consider the real suffering of others.

I am happy for Justice Gascon. I am grateful for the wonderful assistance and support I have received from family and professionals. I worry about the many parents and children who suffer in obscurity and I really hope for the day when we point our priorities firmly in the right direction.


What Brings you Joy?

Driving back from Montreal on a beautiful afternoon. What brings you Joy?

It is important to always reflect on what brings you Joy. This was a particularly challenging work week, we all have them and these are the times to reflect on the positive. This may sound a bit trite, but that is how things need to go. Staying mired in the negativity engendered by some organizations doesn’t help you at all.

Look for the things in your work and life that give you joy. For me, this was a particularly wonderful interview we did for a radio broadcast we do on a regular basis. The show is called First Hand Stories and this interview was done with Chris Nihmey, a mental health advocate here in Ottawa.

Chris has an important message for all of us and he displays the courage to talk about his story to school children and the general public whenever he can. Radio is a great way to communicate ideas, sometimes stilted by email, Twitter, blogs and Facebook. It is a great creative endeavour that brings lots of joy. Our time with Chris was magical and we feel so privileged to have had some time with him to discuss such an important topic.

Here is the interview.

If you want to learn more about the work Chris is doing, you can check out his website here.

The interview is a very small part of the wonderful burst of creativity that comes out daily from Voiced Radio. I have written about Stephen Hurley and the wonderful collection of broadcasters he continues to collect under his banner. Stephen really has something going. He really gets Joy. We are totally dedicated to Voiced Radio, not just because it is an incredibly creative project, but because it is always such a positive experience.

There is no bureaucratic malaise here, no negativity, no limiting hand that slaps you down, just a positive creative pulse that sustains and provides inspiration.

What brings Joy?

Working with accepting people who appreciate your work and the time devoted to creative projects.

There are so many other organizations that really could learn a lesson from this. Do those you work with create Joy?

A photo with Chris Nihmey after our First Hand Stories interview.


The Stigma Surrounding Mental Health in the World of Education

There is a stigma attached to posts on mental health. People are afraid to deal with mental health issues. On Twitter, there will be lots of ‘likes’ and maybe a few retweets, but seldom is there anything else.

So I don’t expend much attention will be paid to this post – too bad.

The stigma surrounding mental illness is a big problem especially for principals and superintendents who actually witness many people suffering from mental health issues – teachers, students, parents. They have no training in this area and I think, tend to be less than empathetic. As a principal, I know we seldom discussed these topics and any form of distress was easily seen as a sign of weakness.

As a principal, I had an advantage. I have first-hand experience of the impact mental illness can have on an individual. I also had nine years of experience working as a guidance counsellor before I became an administrator. I easily saw more people in distress as an administrator than I ever saw as a counsellor. At least I knew what these people were going through. Most administrators do not and that is not a good situation.

I witnessed this deficit at all levels of senior administration with one notable exception.

The work being done in the  campaign is really important and I am looking forward to participating in the #Ontedchat twitter chat next Wednesday, January 24th, at 8:30 PM. This would also be a great topic for a Voiced Radio podcast!

I hope other people, the people who are in positions of responsibility listen to this podcast – they really should. The stigma surrounding mental illness needs to disappear. The fear needs to disappear. People need to step up and do much more to support those who suffer.

Empathy – We Still Have a Way to Go


We are coming up to ‘Bell Let’s Talk‘ on January 31st. This is a day to have an open dialogue on mental health issues in Canada. That’s a very good thing.

Twitter is not always the best forum for discussions on important topics like mental health. I have already seen people ‘like’ tweets about the importance of reaching out if you are someone in distress.

It is so easy to ‘like’. It is much harder to sit there and be present with someone who is really struggling. As someone who has suffered from mental illness in the past, I know people need more than a retweet.

I am happy that this topic is reaching beyond the shadows and getting some publicity. I am seeing people like Chris Nihmey and Laurie Azzi who are doing really important work on social media getting out the message that people need to talk. This is essential and I think their work could actually save lives.

What we need is more people entering this dialogue in a really meaningful way. I remember what it was like to be a struggling educator with serious mental health concerns. I did reach out to people when I was suffering from debilitating anxiety. In all cases, at work at least, my efforts to reach out were rebuffed.

In one case that I have written about before, I told a superintendent that undue stress was a trigger for anxiety. Incredibly, my honest admission was ignored.

Very fortunately for me when I reached out at home, I was understood and loved. That has made all the difference.

I learned a lot from my own mental health struggles and I am better for what I went through. I do however struggle with those in places of authority who are still unable to be empathetic when it comes to the people who work for them.

I have never called out the superintendent that was so insensitive to my own admissions and I won’t do it now. I only hope that they have learned something in the past few years. I hope they have learned a certain degree of empathy.

I am adding a Twitter Moment to this post. It is part of an incredible conversation on Twitter on the need for empathy amongst educators for educators. There are some pretty stark posts included here. I really hope that by writing these tweets, people have found some healing and understanding.

Good that there is a day of awareness. We still have a lot of growing to do.


Educators and Mental Health: Teaching on a Global Stage

I have been reading and rereading posts by some very brave people this weekend. Destigmatizing the Depressed Educator by Mandy Froehlich, Too Much by Colleen Rose and material by  Chris Nihmey.

I have worked with Chris and he is a gifted writer, presenter and mental health advocate. I have met Colleen and I found Mandy’s post thanks to George Couros.

All three of these people are educators and all three have moved onto the global stage to share some of their most personal struggles about mental health with the world. Colleen and Mandy have posted recently about their struggles on their blogs. Chris is a well-known advocate in the Ottawa area.

By writing and speaking out, they are educators in the truest sense of the word. They have all moved beyond the classroom and they are using themselves to highlight the struggles people go through who are dealing with mental health issues. As educators and excellent communicators, they are very well suited to take to this stage.

We trust our teachers and we learn from them in all sorts of ways. As educators, we have a responsibility to speak out on important issues like this one.

Being open about their own struggles is extremely difficult, but it means so much for all those who come into contact with their stories.

Mental health is still a scary story. Very few people want to make their stories public and many people live their suffering in silence. Others have difficulty supporting those who are suffering, either they are scared or they see the sufferer as somehow untouchable.

I have done my own writing on this topic so I know what these people are risking and I applaud them for speaking up and normalizing something that is so common but still is seldom spoken about.

The struggles are difficult, but there is good that can come out of these trials. When an educator speaks about such a personal struggle, they are giving permission for others to realize that mental health is something that most people struggle with at some point in their lives.

It also means that students, educators and parents will begin to find a more accepting audience when they take the risk involved in coming forward with their own journey. I know that I became a much better principal and counsellor once I started to learn about my own mental health issues. I could empathize and understand much better now what students and parents go through. I like to think that I was a much more effective educator because of my own struggles.

I am writing here to acknowledge what these teachers are doing and to say that these people are being educators in the most important way. They are putting themselves out there so that others can learn and feel accepted when they struggle.

Struggling in silence is terrible. Making mental health something that we can all talk about is essential. Having respected educators being open about their own struggles is liberating for all of us.

Thanks to all of you!

What Do We Really Value in Education?

Sometimes the hardest questions in education get danced around and never answered.

Like all institutions, the education system is imperfect and the biggest problems never really get looked at. Right now in Ontario, there is a very worthwhile consultation taking place on assessment. Voiced Radio and other commentators are doing an excellent job at promoting and participating in this on-going discussion. This is really good news.

We look at portions of the system because we can’t look at the whole thing.

Recently I have listened to former colleagues talk about the situations in their schools. These conversations are not uncommon and they make up the ‘war stories’ that all educators share.

While we despair when we hear about poor and sometimes unethical management in our schools, nothing is ever done about these situations. We never ask the question – what do we really value in education? If we really asked this uncomfortable question would we continue to protect adults who clearly have no idea how to manage schools and the people in them?

There are a whole set of rules, conventions and practices that exist to protect individuals, especially those in privileged positions of power in the education system. A huge amount of energy is put into sustaining these rules and conventions.

Not everyone deserves this type of misguided practice. When we protect these people, we certainly put students, staff and parents in the back seat.

Our lack of action displays a lack of concern for the people we are supposed to serve. Maybe we think incompetence is OK, or maybe it is just too hard to swim against the bureaucratic tide that protects those who are simply not up to the job.

The best we can say is ‘wait them out’. But what does this do to the mental strain staff members have to put up with every day? If we really want to take mental health seriously in our schools we really need to get our own house in order and call to task those individuals who are really not up to the responsibility of properly managing a school.

I write out of anger and frustration about what I hear. It is very frustrating that some school administrators are allowed to act with impunity, secure in the knowledge that their authority will not be questioned and that they will always be supported by school board staff who really do not want to rock the boat.

Our students, staff and parents deserve better. We will never have an excellent system while we continue to look the other way and support poor governance of some of our schools.

Good for Ontario to take on the EQAO while elephant, but let’s broaden our scope and take a really serious look at how our schools are managed.

How do We Respond to Violence in our Schools?

This morning I listened to a very disturbing interview on CBC Ottawa. A local Ottawa teacher was being interviewed about a violent incident that ended his teaching career. You can read an article about the incident here.

This is a very brave teacher. He is speaking out about violence in schools, a topic that does not get enough public discussion.

It is hard to read this article. In cases like this, the rights of staff to remain safe in their workplace are not being considered. When a student is suspended, their right to privacy trump the rights of staff to work in a safe environment. Merely moving a violent student to another school does nothing to solve the problem, it simply moves it along to another school where teachers are equally in the dark about the presence of a violent offender in their midst.

The CBC asked teachers to speak out about violence in their school and I hope they respond. The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) commissioned a study that reported 60 percent of teachers surveyed have personally experienced violence in the school.

I think the actual percentage is much higher than this. I have heard of incidents this year where students have actually tried to break into classes to get at students. Schools seem to be helpless when it comes to dealing with these incidents.

I remember being in a situation where we actually had to physically restrain a student who wanted to get at another pupil who was locked in my office for his own protection. As the incident played out, students in the school had to be rerouted to other parts of the school to keep them safe. While we were able to keep the violent student restrained, the incident was never debriefed and the only feedback we received from our school board was criticism on the methods we used to restrain the student.

These incidents happen every day in our schools. In many cases, educational assistants are the ones who are being injured. While some of these staff members have training working with violent students, teachers and administrators seldom receive this type of training.

The system is skewed in favor of the student and their need for privacy. When a student receives a suspension or some other consequence staff members are rarely informed. There is no procedure to keep staff members safe from a violent offender and their right to privacy comes before the right of school staff to remain safe.

I am not surprised to read that violence is increasing in the schools. Whatever is happening in society is reflected in the school. Andrew Campbell wrote an excellent article on the lack of mental health services in our schools – The Hypocrisy of Student Well-being. In his article Andrew points out that very little is currently being done to provide schools with the resources they need to deal with a growing mental health crisis in the schools.

So during a time of crisis, as students are suffering and educators are getting hurt, the ministry’s new well-being program is more focussed on funding active transportation and breakfast programs than providing front line support to children with mental health needs. In fact the major initiative to address student mental health is a provincial support team that doesn’t work directly with students. Unacceptable.

I hope that this excellent article will get more attention. It is hard to hear about a teacher suffering a career-ending injury and it is troubling to know that these incidents will continue to happen until we begin to take a serious look at the growing mental health crisis that is making our schools an increasingly hazardous place to work.

My Mental Health Journey


This week, my daughter asked if she could use me for an assignment on mental health.  She is in the middle of a Master’s degree in Science, so I thought this might be a good time to write about something I have never disclosed publically.  I do this not to draw more attention to myself – I have no interest in that.  I have decided to put this out with the hope that it might help someone and that I can contribute to the conversation on mental health that is currently going on here in Canada.  The assignment questions and answers are all part of this post.

Hope it helps.

Can you talk briefly about your diagnosis?

Yes, the diagnosis was reached 8 years ago and it was characterized as ‘pure obsessive-compulsive disorder’ – a clinical anxiety disorder.  Pure, in the sense that this form of OCD did not come with any form of compulsive actions like washing hands, checking to make sure doors are locked, excessive cleanliness etc.  Pure OCD is characterized more by obsessive or intrusive thoughts.

Growing up, what did you know about mental illness? How was mental illness seen by the society at large? How was it seen by those close to you?

Growing up I knew nothing about the condition.  I am pretty sure my mother suffered from some form of the disorder, but she never received treatment.  In fact, until 8 years ago, I knew little about the condition.  I went through 20 years where the condition was undiagnosed.  It tended to flare up during the summer and at Christmas when I wasn’t as busy at work.  It first presented itself around the time I started working full-time at 27.  It was a preexisting condition which I think was aggravated by stress and I worked in a very stressful environment as a high school teacher.

How is mental illness seen by the public?

That is a huge question.  I think there is still a huge amount of stigma surrounding mental illness and that the whole topic is somewhat of a taboo where those that suffer are somehow seen as weak.  This has led me to keep my condition largely a secret, which really is not helpful for others that suffer from some form of mental illness.  I believe there is very little understanding of mental illness amongst the general public and educators are no better informed than the general public.

I am reminded of a time where I actually disclosed my condition to a supervisor explaining that undue stress could trigger a relapse of the condition.  The supervisor discounted the information entirely.  I still feel like I have a responsibility to address this situation with this individual at some point.  A lack of empathy when it comes to mental health issues is simply not acceptable, especially when a person is responsible for others in the workplace.

Other supervisors told me when I was in the midst of a particular mental health crisis that they didn’t want to know anything about it.  Unfortunately even loved ones encouraged me to ‘get over it’ or concluded that this condition would just ‘remain’ and I should get used to living a diminished existence.  I am happy to say, that at least with my family, there has been a great change in attitude as they have learned along with me.

Generally speaking, people don’t understand anxiety and other forms of mental illness and I do believe that people are threatened by these discussions.  I have a great amount of respect for Canadians like Clara Hughes who has been so open about talking about her mental health issues.

In class, we sometimes talk about mental illness as a form of disability. People are disabled by their environment because our world was structured for those without limitations. Have you ever seen yourself as having a disability?

Yes, I do have a disability.  Mental Health becomes an issue for people when it gets in the way of normal functioning.  This was the case for me for over 20 years.  For people with OCD, it has been typical that the condition goes undiagnosed for as long as 20 years.  Diagnosis and treatment make a huge difference and it is a tragedy that people have gone so long suffering, in fact, in silence.  My hope that writing about the condition will help more people to seek help earlier and that everyone begins to see that mental health is something that needs to be talked about and understood, especially by people who manage others in the workplace.

Can you talk about your experiences with health professionals? Could the health professionals you encountered done anything differently?

Things changed for me because of some wonderful practitioners at the Ottawa Hospital and a close friend who is a psychiatrist at the same hospital.  I received excellent treatment there, but I would never have received this help if it wasn’t for the intervention of my friend.  This is one of the terrible facts about mental health in Canada.  It is very difficult to access really good care.  I find that many people are unable to access the care that they desperately need.  Psychological assistance is very expensive and generally available only to those who have health coverage.  For people without connections, the waiting list to see a psychiatrist can be very long.  I am so fortunate to have had the resources to access the excellent care I have received.

It is also true that many practitioners do not understand anxiety very well.  My family doctor was not helpful and prescribed an anxiety medication that led to serious addiction issues.  One therapist I saw for a long period of time actually made things worse for me and gave me no warning about the very negative effects of the medications I was taking.  The road to recovery was littered with many false starts and lack of understanding even from members of the medical community.

Has your experience with mental illness impacted the things that you do every day? (More specifically, in the workplace, in recreation, with family members)?

Yes, it has changed entirely how I look at life.  It led me to learn much more about meditation and Buddhist philosophy – both which have altered the way I  look at myself and others.  I realize now that you can live with a mental health condition and that serious conditions can be treated very successfully.  You do need an effective team working with you and the team does need to understand who they are dealing with.

Dealing with mental illness means that you have to look at your whole life and how you approach things.  You need to learn to accept the help of others and in some cases, learn that taking medication plays an important role in keeping you healthy.  I see all this as a good thing.  I truly believe that we learn best when we are under pressure or even in crisis.  We tend to ‘lean in’ and learn when we are in crisis.  The alternative is seeking oblivion through drugs, alcohol and a whole variety of methods.  This is a real danger in our society and one of the reasons why we need to understand addiction better and help those more effectively who are suffering.  Again, as a society, we could do a much better job at this.

Do you believe that your experiences with mental illness has offered you a unique perspective?

Yes, totally.  I don’t really regret the 20 years that I suffered from undiagnosed anxiety.  I appreciate the help I have received and I have learned so much about myself.  In some ways, I feel that I have been reborn by this experience especially now that I truly understand my condition and have learned to live with it successfully.  I also believe that we are always learning about ourselves.  To stop learning is to stop living and I deeply appreciate what I have gleaned over the past 8 years.

For you, what was the most effective form of treatment?  

For me, it was a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy – talking therapy and in my case, medication.  Sometimes medication is essential so the mind can get a chance to calm down enough to be able to accept the cognitive element of treatment.  That is why it is important to have a team working for you – a psychologist to do the cognitive therapy working in tandem with a psychiatrist who can prescribe medication and monitor its effects.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to write about all of this.  This is something I probably could not have done even a few years ago, but I realize now that it is important to speak out to help those who are suffering on their own.  I think it is also a measure of my own recovery that I am able to write about my mental health journey.  I would also like to thank my family,  friends and my wonderful medical team who has done so much for me over the past few years.