“You’re perfectly fine. You’re going to school.”
This is an answer that some parents may give their children in response to mental health complaints, from a seven-year-old who holds his abdomen in pain from being too nervous, to a 17-year-old who can’t seem to get out of bed for days.
However, the conversation is slowly shifting.
The Calgary Journal spoke to three Calgarians across three generations to understand how the narrative is changing.
A senior’s perspective: Alice Williams
As Alice Williams sits on the couch in the living room of her home with her two grandsons playing quietly in the next room, she pauses as she recounts mental health in the 1960s.
“You know, we didn’t talk about it,” says Williams, when thinking about the topic of mental health within her family. “I didn’t know what was going on.”
Now in her early 70s, looking back at her adolescence, Williams says her mother was likely depressed at times — especially during her mother’s transition from being a nurse and midwife to being a housewife. This was a common situation for women in her mother’s generation.
“I sometimes wonder if she was really fulfilled,” she says.
Due to the period’s lack of conversation around mental health, Williams never got the chance to ask.
Williams retired from her career as a public health nurse and midwife, taking after her mom, seven years ago. When she was in her 20s and 30s, she worked closely with young clients, some of whom had depression and bipolar disorder. Her clients’ experiences taught her a lot about mental health.
“I really learned on the job, to be honest with you.”
One problem was that mental health issues were mainly treated when they were linked to a physical health complication. Williams says social work, community homecare and palliative homecare were a few of the resources patients utilized.
She has noticed the conversation around mental health open up throughout the years and as an advocate for meaningful conversations is grateful.
“I think the younger generation now, like my own children, are much more aware of the resources,” says Williams with hope in her voice.
Williams smiles at her grandsons when thinking about the future of mental health. She hopes that open dialogue around mental health continues so the stigma reduces and her grandchildren don’t have to struggle like those in her generation did.
A gen-X view: Tamara Mowat, 49
In downtown Calgary, Tamara Mowat finishes attending her 10:30 a.m. class at Transitions to Communities, a vocational program helping individuals living with mental health issues as a result of trauma.
Mowat, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2016 and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder this year, says that she was unknowingly struggling with both conditions for over 20 years.
Periods of extreme anxiety and irritability affect Mowat as she ceaselessly tries to balance the intensity of her emotions.
“I felt like this is all my fault,” says Mowat.
“It’s taken me awhile to realize that, no, there is nothing wrong with me. It’s just how my brain works.”
But being unaware of her mental health caused her to not find help immediately.
“Well not knowing that I had it at first was very impactful because I did not know what was going on,” she explains.
“I’m almost 50 years old,” Mowat says. “Looking back, I wish I would’ve known it back then so I wouldn’t have had to struggle so much.”
But to Mowat’s surprise she was met with other struggles after her diagnosis, as the stigma following mental health becomes prominent.
“I’ve actually had people recently just tell me to get over it and get on. That’s the worst thing that anybody can do to somebody with a mental illness because it would destroy them.” - Tamara Mowat
“I’ve actually had people recently just tell me to get over it and get on,” she says. “That’s the worst thing that anybody can do to somebody with a mental illness because it would destroy them.”
She admits that although she had the support of friends and her community, there was a lack thereof from her family. Despite this, Mowat is grateful for the many programs available today that accommodate people living with mental health issues, a change she witnessed over the years.
It’s thanks to programs like the one Mowat attends regularly that help her cope with the challenges attached to her mental health, as staying employed is another complication she faces.
Amanda Osborne, who runs Transitions to Communities, says that Calgary employers are changing and making ways to talk about mental health within offices more normal. But for employees, it is still difficult to inform employers about the struggles they face.
“When you start going down that path of gaining employment, when do you disclose?” says Osborne, who has had these discussions with clients for the past 20 years.
“It all depends on what kind of work you’re doing and what kind of mental challenge you have,” says Mowat. “But I do know some companies are really welcoming and will accommodate you for certain needs.”
“I’m hoping that will help me in the future.”
A millennial’s view: Brett Rothery, 20
On the Sunday before the first day back to his senior year at Calgary’s Crescent Heights High School, Brett Rothery, now 20, started the hashtag #CHHSLetsTalk. Rothery asked other Calgary high schoolers to share their thoughts and experiences on Twitter using the tag to start conversation and raise money for the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Rothery’s initiative was inspired by #BellLetsTalk but unlike Bell’s campaign, Rothery thought it would be more beneficial for his Twitter campaign to last a month to generate a genuine conversation about mental health.
“There’s time for the conversation to develop and to wax and wane and have a natural flow,” says Rothery.
Rothery’s high school had agreed to donate five cents for each tweet made using #CHHSLetsTalk, with a limit of $500. Within the first day of the campaign there had been over 10,000 tweets. Local businesses and individuals stepped in to donate money and continue fundraising for the rest of the month.
The campaign raised over $20,000 for the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Rothery says that people from other generations, including his grandparents are not as open to speaking about mental health as others his age.
“I think it would be very odd for them to have a conversation so publicly and so out there,” says Rothery about his grandparents. “As far as I know, they wouldn’t even talk to their close friends about that stuff.”
While his parents did not play a big role in Rothery’s #CHHSLetsTalk initiative, they have become more open about the subject. Rothery says his dad designed a large sign for the campaign that hung in his high school.
“It’s very interesting to see how my parents have picked up on it,” he says. “We don’t talk about mental health 24/7 but it’s kind of a conversation that they’re willing to have.”
Rothery says he’s lucky that he’s able to speak to his parents about mental health when he needs to. However, they still struggle to understand the importance of a simple open conversation.
Instead, he often turns to his friends when he just needs someone to talk to.
“I feel like your family — it’s almost that they’re so invested that they want this quick fix and they want to help you get ‘better.’ To me, sometimes you just want to talk to someone,” says Rothery.
“Sometimes, that’s what you need,” he says. “You need someone to be your sounding board, whereas I feel like a lot of time with families, they really want to be your saving grace.”
Rothery recognizes that social media is a powerful tool for sharing experiences and opening up conversation for mental health, but reducing the stigma will be a process.
He hopes that future generations continue the advocacy work today by utilizing the tools that have progressed through the years.
Where do we go from here?
Back in her living room, Williams presses her back against her couch as she contemplates how seniors experience mental health differently from other generations.
Depression, according to Williams, can stem from loneliness — especially in seniors. This is a situation that she confronts frequently, from her next-door neighbours to strangers she meets in seniors groups.
But after watching the mental health scene evolve for over 70 years, Williams has remained optimistic about the support that today’s society can receive.
“My generation,” Williams begins, “I think actually — I think we’re in a good position because there are so many resources and people are willing to talk about it.”
She says individuals living with mental health issues have been set up for success by the younger generations, and if millennials continue to open up the conversation for future generations, there will be less stigma and more support for those who need it.
- By Rosemary De Souza and Karina Zapata