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Sarnia Speaks up: About mental health

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Tara Jeffrey

A college student, a radio personality, a residential school survivor and a young woman fighting to breathe may not have much in common, on the surface.

“From looking at us, you wouldn’t know we’ve suffered from mental illness,” said Tara Bourque, one of four panelists slated to lead the inaugural Sarnia Speaks, happening March 31 at the Sarnia Library. The free event aims to provide a safe, open dialogue about mental health.

“That’s the stigma of mental illness. It’s not always treated the same as physical illness, because you can’t really see it.”

Bourque, 22, has battled cystic fibrosis all her life, and is now coping with chronic rejection after undergoing a double lung transplant four years ago.

And while she’s been a vocal and visible advocate in the community, most people don’t see the mental struggle that comes with having a chronic illness, she said.

“Dealing with all the tests and procedures is exhausting, and it wears away at your sense of positivity and motivation,” said Bourque, who endures constant clinic appointments, dozens of pills and plenty of uncertainty. It’s kind of been a roller coaster ride of emotions — learning to find the good in each day, and balance it all out.”

Bourque and the other panelists were invited by event organizer and mutual friend Danielle Cooper, who was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder while attending Lambton College several years ago.

Danielle Cooper
Danielle Cooper

“It was really tough for me, missing school and failing assignments,” said Cooper, now 28 and working with the Bluewater Health Foundation. “I didn’t really have any support; there was nothing out there.”

Cooper managed to work through her anxiety over the years, but those feelings of constant worry and unease crept back up on her last fall.

“The pivotal moment was talking to Tara (Bourque), who told me that she often feels those same things,” Cooper said. “To speak to someone who is really going through the same thing as you — to me, that’s the most therapeutic and powerful form of coping and managing.”

So she decided to launch an open-dialogue-style forum, free to the public.

“I just thought, ‘wouldn’t it be neat if we just had this open space where anybody could come, and not necessarily share their story, but to listen and learn,” she said.

She recruited Lambton College student Kyle McVittie, president of the college’s chapter of Jack.org, a national mental health initiative, who also speaks at local high schools through the college’s Let’s Face It campaign.

“There’s been a lot of mental health issues in Sarnia that have resulted in suicide, because people aren’t talking about it,” said McVittie, 19, who has struggled with his own anxiety and depression. “I want people to understand that we’re in this together.”

Rounding out the panel are local radio personality Tony Frangis — who has been open about his past struggles with Panic Disorder — and First Nations mother, Lila Bruyere, a former alcoholic-turned-addictions counsellor who battled depression as a result of the abuse she endured at St. Margaret Residential School in Fort Frances in the 1960s.

Cooper, meanwhile, is hoping Sarnia Speaks will take off as an ongoing series. A follow-up event, “Sarnia Speaks: Coming Out” is tentatively scheduled for June, to coincide with LGBT Pride Month.

“I didn’t want to just stop the conversation at mental health,” said Cooper. “There’s so many other things impacting Sarnia that we can talk about.

“That’s all I want for this — to keep everybody talking.”

 

IF YOU GO:

What: Sarnia Speaks: Mental Health

Where: Sarnia Library Theatre

When: Thursday, March 31, 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Details: Event is free and open to the public

 

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