COLUMN: Investing in mental health, addictions pays off

Tara Jeffrey

For a long time, mental health and addiction in Sarnia wasn’t something to talk about.

We’d hear rumblings about ‘3 west’ and the stigma that accompanied anyone who’d been admitted to the ‘psych ward.’

Addiction was shrouded in shame, and talking about suicide was off-limits.

But there’s been a shift in recent years, and thanks to some brave trailblazers making a difference in our community, many are finding hope through awareness, fundraising, and reclaiming what it means to be ‘sick, not weak.’

“It was very uncommon six years ago for someone to come in and make a donation to mental health,” says Bluewater Health Foundation director Kathy Alexander.

But in 2014, Norm Alix’s troubling experience in the local emergency department — where he was shocked to see police bring in youth suffering from substance abuse — prompted the late Sarnia philanthropist to act.

Though he didn’t live long enough to see it come to fruition, a $1-million gift from the Judith & Norman Alix Foundation launched an endowment fund to fight local substance abuse, with interest going toward the hospital’s withdrawal management program — which this week, opened its seven-bed, temporary residential facility.

“This shows us so much hope — that people are willing to invest in something that, five to ten years ago, wasn’t even talked about,” said Alexander. “People are coming in now saying, ‘I’d like to make a donation to mental health, because when I was here, it saved my life.’”

People like Lindsay Kirkland, whose stay at the mental health inpatient unit prompted her to launch the “Stigma Survivors” campaign to raise awareness and funds for recreational therapy.

And people like Dan Edwards, who launched a 2016 campaign to raise $150,000 for the hospital’s mental health services, as a way to give back to the community that supported him. The well-known motivational speaker — whose spinal cord injury left him paralyzed from the waist down — has raised some $78,000 to date.

That same year, Danielle Cooper had an idea to start a speaker series where panelists and audience members could share their own struggles in a safe space. Sarnia Speaks was born, and the widely popular grassroots dialogue has opened a new avenue for people to bravely share their stories of mental illness and addiction.

Last year, a sold-out crowd in Sarnia gathered to hear mental health advocate and #sicknotweak founder Michael Landsberg speak during CMHA mental health week.

“People were standing up at a gala sharing their own stories — it as incredible to watch,” Alexander said.

That same month, a $250,000 donation from LiUNA Local 1089 went towards children’s mental health at the hospital.

This year, proceeds from a Montreal Canadiens Alumni game in March will go to the Deker Bauer Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Stephanie Shaw Memorial Ball Hockey tournament for suicide prevention returns in July, and a ‘Face-Off for Mental Health’ campaign for minor hockey continues to raise money and awareness for St. Clair Child & Youth.

In any given year, one in five Canadians experience a mental health or addiction problem, making mental illness the leading cause of disability.

News of last week’s anonymous, $100-million donation to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health had Alexander beaming — not just because of the impact it will have on some 7 million Canadians grappling with psychiatric conditions — but because it reminded her of the progress that’s being made right here in Sarnia.

“Whether it’s a million dollars or five dollars, we’re seeing fundraising for things that historically, haven’t been funded for,” she said.

“People are giving back because of their own experiences, or for those close to them, and they’re saying, ‘we need to make a change.’”

If you or someone you know is in distress, contact Lambton Mental Health Crisis Services at 519-336-3445.