The following is a guest blog by Karen McPherson, community mental health advocate.
I’m really excited to have been asked to write a blog post for United Way about mental health, a topic that I find fascinating, scary, hopeful and still largely misunderstood. It’s an important topic in a world that is changing, especially as we see the velocity of change increasing, especially as technology intertwines itself into our lives more and more. I can’t think of many issues that require our attention and understanding more than mental health issues do. Conservatively, it’s been estimated that one in five adults will deal with a mental health issue in their lifetime. Based on my experience and those of my friends and family, I would be willing to bet that number is much higher, but people hold back from seeking help or discussing their mental health because of lingering stigma.
I’m proud of what I have accomplished so far in my life. I worked in the energy industry for over 20 years, starting as a receptionist at a small oil and gas company, parlaying my administrative job into a career in IT that took me overseas. When I returned to Canada in 2004, I transformed my technical skills into a business analysis consulting career, and, in 2015, managed to get myself elected to the Alberta Legislature as the MLA for Calgary Mackay Nose Hill. Right now, I’m enrolled in a six month Full Stack Developer program at EvolveU to help get me back into the technology sector. I have had a long love affair with technology and I want to have some kind of say in how policy, governance, and technology converge to have positive impacts on us, and mitigate the negative ways our lives collide with it.
My path to this point hasn’t been smooth. I grew up in a small town called Sexsmith, located just outside of Grande Prairie in northwestern Alberta. There weren’t many conversations about mental health that I can remember as a kid, and most of the ones I do recall made liberal use of the word “crazy,” a word that I think most of us now realize isn’t helpful. It conjures up images of asylums from the Victorian era and people completely disconnected from reality.
“It seemed like there would always be a part of me that was “broken,” a piece of my brain that I couldn’t convince to shake off old patterns.”
Learning from the past
I didn’t realize how much of an impact my childhood had on my mental health until well into my 40’s. I was sexually abused by a family friend for a number of years as a girl, and after having my own children, sought help to deal with flashbacks I started experiencing from the abuse. I was diagnosed with PTSD, and over the years, I’ve sought help for some of the mental health fallout from the abuse, but would have periods of deep depression that felt immutable, like I would never be able to shake it. It seemed like there would always be a part of me that was “broken,” a piece of my brain that I couldn’t convince to shake off old patterns.
These episodes would debilitate me. I’d be unable to work; I’d barely be able to care for myself, avoiding contact with people, often losing 20 to 30 pounds and seriously doubting my ability to ever recover and rejoin the world. These episodes have had a devastating effect on my self-esteem, my relationships with family and friends, and my financial well-being.
A number of years ago I started to hear about some wonderful research being done in the US about Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. These are events or circumstances that, individually, kids are likely able to overcome, but the more ACEs a child encounters, the more likely they are to encounter health and social problems later in life. Taking an online version of the 10 questions used to evaluate a person’s risk for issues revealed that I could answer yes to seven of the 10 risk factors. That was a real eye-opener for me. Where I had spent a lot of time being very hard on myself for having these periods of time where I don’t cope very well and am very depressed, now I have more compassion for myself.
I’m really grateful for the resilience I have developed over the years. I now bounce back faster from the downtimes. I am learning to trust myself again—I have a really great brain; it adapted to the trauma I experienced early in life and kept me as safe as it could, and now I recognize those patterns are more likely to emerge when I’m under a lot of stress, so I’m able to take measures to reduce stress if I can, and to mitigate it if I’m not able to reduce it.
“Mental health is an issue that affects everyone, whether directly or indirectly, and a mental health issue shouldn’t be what stands between you and your dreams.”
The impact of mental health
I’ve been fortunate to have a platform to talk about issues that I think are important over the last 5 years, and I remain convinced that shedding light on issues we’ve found uncomfortable in the past is an effective way to cause positive change. Mental health is an issue that affects everyone, whether directly or indirectly and a mental health issue shouldn’t be what stands between you and your dreams.
Good mental health policy addresses trauma early and makes mental health supports easily accessible. It’s important to let elected officials know that you support wider access to mental health services. Our country loses $50 billion dollars a year to lost productivity and other costs associated with mental health issues. This is an issue that will continue to have a big impact on all of us. Well thought out, comprehensive policies, and adequate funding of those policies, is critical to keeping Canadians, Albertans, and Calgarians mentally healthy.
Mental health issues have had a big impact on my relationship with myself, more than any other relationship in my life. I am very grateful to be at a point that I can recognize that I can be my own best friend and biggest cheerleader, and give myself the love and nurturing that I missed out on a lot as a child. Through patience and a commitment to my well-being, I’ve been able to accomplish a lot that I’m proud of. Love and support can help people overcome many obstacles.
I’m very grateful for the support I’ve found at Catholic Family Services, through their Rapid Access Counselling program, which is funded by United Way. When you have the opportunity to give to United Way, I would really like to encourage you to give generously to support this and other innovative mental health initiatives that are helping Calgarians year-round.
United Way is grateful to Karen for sharing her story. As a community impact organization, United Way proudly invests in programs and initiatives to support the mental well-being of people living in Calgary and area. To learn more about our work, especially in the field of kids’ mental health, please click here.