As October’s Mental Health Awareness Month winds to a close, I’ve been reflecting on just how critical this topic is to us here in Alberta. I’ve had my struggles and dark times, and I’m sure you’ve had them, too. Far from being challenges faced by a minority of unfortunate people, issues with mental health are an almost universal human experience, and I think this is one of the most important things to remember.
No one faces these problems alone – and at the moment, there are pressures in our province that are making them even more common.
We all know that Alberta has been going through a time of difficulties over the last 6 years, perhaps even unprecedented in our history. With each new round of layoffs or company closures, there has been a cost to people that’s hard to even begin to calculate. Behind every job lost because of declining oil prices, our lack of access to markets, or catastrophic food trade bans is a human being – and often family – that faces an uncertain and frightening future.
Not surprisingly, tough economic times are very much associated with declines in mental health. A University of Calgary study released just last month found a dramatic connection between the two. For every percentage rise in unemployment, researchers saw a 2.8% increase in suicides. Last year, a total of 637 people took their own lives in our province. At least in part, this is the tragic, hidden cost of our economic struggles.
"An economic downturn may contribute to an increase in suicides by adding to financial stress through loss of income, and wealth, threatened mortgage foreclosures, and perhaps by contributing to increased social isolation."
-University of Calgary study
Of course, we know that mounting financial pressures lead to increased mental health problems – anxiety or depression over how we’ll pay the bills or find our footing in our careers is something most of us have felt at some point. For those with pre-existing conditions, it can be a match that ignites a fire that might have otherwise been left smouldering and more manageable. It also adds to relationship conflicts, causing rifts in our support systems when we need it the most.
I think back to my father Darsell, who has always been the biggest inspiration and most important figure in my life. He was an entrepreneur and a risk-taker, who wanted to fully experience life and was willing to sacrifice comfort and stability to follow his dreams. There are a lot of people cut from the same cloth here in Alberta – I think it’s something we pride ourselves on.
He took chances, and sometimes, they didn’t work out. In the early days of founding our company, Absolute Combustion, we experienced seemingly endless frustrations and roadblocks in getting the company going. He was ordinarily such an optimistic and motivated person, but three years of struggles took their toll, and he fell into a deep depression I never thought was possible for him. My happy, energetic father, who loved socializing and joking, became a different person – one I didn’t know.
“Through perseverance many people win success out of what seemed destined to be certain failure.”
I now understand what he was feeling, although it was confusing to me at the time. In my darkest period, I remember sitting on my kitchen floor with my head in my hands, in complete despair at how seemingly everything in my life was collapsing around me, all at once. The crash in the oilpatch had taken away a promising market for our cleantech combustion units, and I was suffering from a devastating health condition that had left me hospitalized. I worried about my children, the multiple family households I was supporting, my staff who relied on me, and my investors in the company. I saw nothing but insurmountable problems, and no possible way forward.
I already had a life-long history of anxiety that I carefully managed, but this extreme stress turned it into an inferno. Have you been there, too? Those incredibly painful moments where life seems like a set of hurdles that just keep getting higher and more impossible to jump, and you start to lose hope that it will ever get any better? Maybe you’re there now, reading this. I’m here to tell you it does get better – and it did for my father, too.
People have an almost unbelievable ability to find solutions to even the biggest problems, but the key is to never stop trying, and never give up hope. My father treated his depression by becoming part of a healing community and using traditional Indigenous therapies. He reclaimed his optimism and kept moving forward until he saw the light he knew had to be there. I picked myself off the floor, called every investor who believed in me and found a way to make payroll the next week, while redoubling my efforts to meditate, seek therapy and work through my emotions.
I’ve heard so many similar stories from other people. The solution is there, somewhere. You just have to keep going. It looks different for everyone – it could be conventional medicine or therapy, traditional healing techniques or naturopathy, or joining a community of others who feel the same way. Sometimes, finding meaning in our obstacles can give us a purpose that will sustain us through the toughest times.
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter these defeats, so you know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
And most importantly, people need to know that the isolation they feel in those terrible times is not true – it’s a dangerous illusion. Embarrassment and shame over experiencing problems with mental health are one of its most corrosive elements, leading us to turn away from the support of others when it’s what we need to heal.
Independent, tough entrepreneurs – I’d count my father, myself and a lot of Albertans in that category – usually aren’t big fans of asking for help. We like to be the shoulders that others cry on, the strong people that those around us can lean on for help. There’s a huge fear in being vulnerable – that we might let people down or lose their respect. But almost always, the people around us will understand.
“Let’s be clear that we all have mental health and that some of us will experience mental illness. Mental illness is pervasive, one in five Albertans at any time are living with a mental illness.”
-Canadian Mental Health Association, Alberta
Because when it comes down to it, these problems are often a lot more common than anyone ever imagines. By sharing our own experiences with anxiety, depression and other issues, we take away one of the most damaging parts of struggling with mental health – the feeling that people are alone in facing these challenges. In times of high economic stress like Alberta is experiencing, more than ever, it’s critical to shares these hidden pieces of our lives.
In doing so, we not only take away the impression that this suffering exists on an island, but we can give our own experiences more meaning by using them as a way to help others. Sharing our stories isn’t just an act of courage – but in removing this sense of isolation and showing our own path to healing, it becomes a profound act of love. So let’s keep the conversation going.
Resources for Mental Health in Alberta:
Alberta Health Services: https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/amh/amh.aspx
Support for Families: http://famialberta.ca/support/