(Pixabay)

Starting real conversations around mental illness

Sidney forum May 9 features three speakers, opening up about difficult experiences

Emily Olsen says she has, over the last year, found a new way to live with mental illness. And part of that, is being able to talk publicly about her own experiences.

Olsen is one of three people who will be speaking at the Mental Health: Citizens Speaking Their Minds forum at the Mary Winspear Centre in Sidney Wed., May 9.

This week is Mental Health Week and event organizers say they are bringing together women and men “who through many years have managed their own well-being in the midst of a challenging, changing and relatively unknown treatment and management options.”

Olsen said she agreed to tell her story, to get involved, as talking about her own struggles has become a pillar in her own recovery after 25 years of living with mental illness.

“It’s a new way of living with this,” she said, adding she reached the decision to be more public about her fight after learning more about her illness.

Olsen said she comes from a big family, is a mom and a business manager. She’s also married to local MLA Adam Olsen. At one time, all of those things would have contributed to wanting to keep a mental illness to herself.

She suffers from anxiety and depression and said it took over her life. And despite her close family, Olsen said she didn’t know what to say and tried to hide it from everybody. Eventually, however, she said she found it became too difficult to do that. So, she reached out to her family to help create a strategy. Part of that was learning to write poetry and she found that a lot of her issues kept coming up in her writing.

“For me, I started to give others in my life the permission to talk about it.”

That, in turn, empowered Olsen to be able to ask others for help. But she said there’s not a lot of language out there related to asking for help — or at least not at the time she needed it.

In 2002, Olsen said she experienced a breakdown. She credits her family doctor for recognizing it right away and going to the hospital with her, which she said was a very kind thing to do. Yet, despite all she went through then, some people – even family – didn’t want to talk about it. The stigma around mental illness — and people’s inability to talk about it — perpetuates the problem. It’s barriers like that she hopes sharing her story will help eliminate.

For Ryan Painter, difficulties he experienced with his own health were exacerbated by society’s “toxic message about what it means to be a real man.”

Painter, a writer and mental health activist who worked for a time with former NDP MLA Gary Holman’s office, said that, at age 22, a near attempt on his own life was stopped by his partner. It came after years living with depression, anger and more. He said he was afraid to talk to anyone about it.

“That’s due to toxic masculinity,” he said. “You have to be tough, as a man, and you’re not expected to show emotion.”

Painter said there are more and more people talking about mental health these days, but it took him until about a year-and-a-half ago to be able to talk about it. These days, Painter said he’s working on proposed legislation with the NDP at a federal level. His work is on policies within the that party to address issues around mental health and stigma.

“We’re starting to move along as a society, but there’s still a lot of stigma.”

Painter added his own experience with politics made a lot of his own symptoms worse. So, while he’s still involved to some degree, it’s an arm’s length role, and more geared towards mental health policy — an issue he’s passionate about.

Painter said hes been dealing with his illness for years and he’s now at a point where he can better articulate what he’s gone through. Now he’s at a place where he defines himself and doesn’t let the stigma do that.

Olsen and Painter will be joined by Daisy Anderson at the forum. Anderson is an author whose book, The Daisy Project, shares her lifelong challenges as a consumer and survivor of the mental health system. She challenges the idea that drugs and psychiatry are the only ways to deal with mental health issues.

Mental Health: Citizens Speaking their Minds is Wed., May 9 at 7 p.m. at Sidney’s Mary Winspear Centre.

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