Miles for Mental Health Run and Walk hopes to stop the stigma of mental illness
Jessica Berglund was 10 when her father killed himself. Although the principal at her elementary school urged her mom to tell her and her older brother that their dad had died of a heart attack, Berglund says her mom was honest about the cause of his death from the beginning. Growing up in a household where issues such as depression and mental illness were openly discussed made it all the more shocking for Berglund when her brother took his life three years ago.
Erik Berglund was 43 when he died, the same age as his dad.
Jessica, a lawyer at WorkSafeBC, had spent the week before her brother’s death at his Victoria home, where he ended his life on the afternoon of April 11, 2009. He’d asked her to come over because he wasn’t feeling well. The architect and avid hiker had a history of depression and had stopped working.
Looking back at his final days, many things stand out for Berglund. Like the way her brother called their mom to say he was going for a walk shortly before he killed himself. How he had seemed to be in a relatively decent mood the night before. And what was said in a conversation the two of them had with his psychiatrist just days before he died.
On their way to the appointment, Berglund and her brother had talked about hospitalization.
“She [the psychiatrist] asked all the usual questions about suicide: if he had had any thoughts about it, if he had thought about ways to do it,” Berglund explains. “He said, ‘Well, I guess there are lots of ways to do it.’ ”
Berglund asked the psychiatrist about having her brother hospitalized. The answer struck her. “Her words were, ‘Well, if you’re worried about stigma, that’s stigma for you.’ ”
The psychiatrist instead prescribed Seroquel, a powerful antidepressant, and offered to see him twice a week.
“I find it ironic to have a patient and a patient’s family who are so open to whatever and then having a psychiatrist saying hospitalization was stigma.”
This stigma that accompanies mental illness is the reason Berglund wants to speak about her brother, his death, and the way it has affected her. Like her mom, she’s been honest with others about the way he died from the start.
“Within a day or two [of him dying], I sent an email to about 50 people and told them what happened,” she explains. “A few people wrote back and said, ‘I really appreciate your honesty about this.’ It showed to me that if you are upfront, if you have the attitude of being open, it’s amazing what you get back. The more you talk about it, the more people reach out to you. A lot of people have told me things like ‘My mom killed herself,’ or friends of theirs had; you realize how rampant suicide is.”
That’s not to say everyone appreciates Berglund’s honesty.
“For some people, it’s like talking about sex: you just don’t do this,” says Berglund, who has experienced depression herself. “Some people get offended or back off. But whenever I have an opportunity, I put it out there. There doesn’t need to be a stigma; mental health is still the elephant in the room. How can we not talk about something that everyone knows about? Depression, anxiety, and suicide—they’re not hidden, yet we still don’t talk about them.”
One in five people will experience mental illness at some point in their life, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. To diminish the stigma, the CMHA’s Simon Fraser branch is holding its second annual Miles for Mental Health Run and Walk, presented by Douglas College, on Saturday (May 12) at Queen’s Park in New Westminster. The event, the first of its kind in Western Canada, raises funds for the office’s services, which include homeless outreach initiatives, housing programs, and youth services.
Avneet Johal, the CMHA Simon Fraser branch project director, notes that although fundraising walks are frequently used to raise awareness and money for other issues, the fact that this one only got started last year illustrates the problem it’s out to address.
“It’s precisely because of stigma surrounding mental illness that walks like this aren’t more commonplace,” Johal says in a phone interview. “It’s still a difficult topic; it’s not something the community openly talks about.”
He says the inaugural event had a tremendous turnout last year, and that afterward the office received a letter that vividly demonstrates the importance of bringing mental illness out into the open.
“This family had lost a family member to suicide but they had never addressed the issue together; it just went unsaid,” Johal says. “Each person had gone through counselling sessions, but they weren’t able to talk about it as a family until the morning of the run, at the breakfast table. Everybody knew why they were walking, and for the first time they finally talked about it. They said how transformational that was for them and what that meant as a family, moving forward.
“We got quite a few letters that spoke about how important it was to connect with other members of the community, for people to know they’re not alone, to be able to talk,” he adds. “It’s pretty powerful.”
According to the American Association of Suicidology, signs of possible impending suicide include suicidal thoughts, purposelessness, anxiety, withdrawal, anger, recklessness, mood changes, a sense of being trapped, substance use, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, agitation, lack of self-care, and giving away cherished possessions.
The association urges people to tell someone who’s suicidal that you care and want to help. Berglund would also like that person to know there is help and that every day she misses her brother terribly.
People experiencing feelings of distress or despair can visit a hospital emergency room or call Distress Phone Services 24 hours a day at 604-872-3311 or 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433). The confidential, nonjudgmental, free, emotional-support lines are operated by the Crisis Intervention & Suicide Prevention Centre of B.C..