Don’t tell these women that when it comes to mental illness and addictions, change isn’t possible. They know better.
And with the same dogged determination, Clara Hughes and Dianne Young — in very different ways — are making a huge difference.
Hughes is one of Canada’s most decorated Olympians. She has also battled and overcome serious bouts of depression. Young is a Charlottetown mom who recently lost her son to drug addiction and mental illness.
Both have become powerful advocates for change, encouraging us to talk openly about mental illness and demanding better services for those struggling with a condition shared by as many as one in five Canadians.
I got a first-hand glimpse last week of Hughes’ resolve to end the stigma that often surrounds mental illness. There she was biking up a steep hill in Hunter River, bracing against a stiff wind and steady rain.
But she smiled, waved and said hello to the stream of motorists who pulled over to encourage her on the Island leg of her Big Ride, a 110-day cross-Canada tour to raise awareness and acceptance of mental illness. She’s biking to create what she calls “a stigma-free Canada.”
Watching her power her way across P.E.I. and later, seeing highlights of her candid talk to an assembly of students in Charlottetown, it was clear Hughes is a champion for reasons that go far beyond her six Olympic medals.
Dianne Young is another woman who’s championing the cause of Islanders who are dealing with mental illness and addictions. She first spoke publicly in an interview with this newspaper last fall just days after her 29-year-old son, Lennon Waterman, disappeared.
Convinced he had taken his own life because he couldn’t find the supports he needed, she told his heart-wrenching story of the near-decade he was tormented by mental illness while hooked on prescription drugs — Percocets, Dilaudid, Oxycontin. She asked Islanders to open their eyes to the “epidemic” of drug addiction and mental illness, and to press legislators for better rehabilitation services.
Just last weekend, five months after he went missing, Lennon’s body was recovered on the shoreline of the North River. It is believed, as his mother knew all along, that he took his own life.
Earlier this month, Young led a protest at Province House to convince lawmakers to do more to help Islanders struggling with addictions. She’s convinced that lives of young people like her son can be saved if proper supports are put in place.
Clearly, someone is listening.
During a heated debate in the house last week, Premier Robert Ghiz pledged to build a new youth addictions facility if and when the province’s chief mental health and addictions officer, Dr. Rhonda Matters, recommends it. She’s in the midst of a comprehensive review of mental health and addiction services on P.E.I. The premier even said upon Matters’ recommendation, he’d amend this year’s budget to add several million dollars required to build the facility.
And Health Minister Doug Currie said he’s working on a deal that could soon see more Island youth sent to an addictions treatment facility in New Brunswick. But even if that agreement is signed, he said a residential treatment program might still be developed here.
There are many other “champions” who are taking up the cause, people like Darin and Kathleen Meek, whose daughter, Chalyce, 17, took her own life two years ago. To ensure Island teens get the help they need, they’re raising money and awareness for the Kids Help Phone.
Chalyce’s sister, Taylor, is also raising awareness, helping to start a high school group that aims to stop the stigma around mental health issues.
Thanks to the efforts of people like the Meeks, Hughes, Young and many others, more and more people are talking openly about mental health and addictions. They’re helping to reduce the stigma that has prevented too many Islanders from asking for help. And that’s where any one of us may have a role to play.
If you know someone is struggling with mental health or addiction issues, encourage them to talk about it. Then listen, intently. Assure them there is always hope. And help them find supports they’ll need to get well.
When this happens, all of us — like the Meek family, Clara Hughes and Dianne Young — become champions for change.
Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.