The name Anna Mehler Paperny will ring familiar to Canadian news junkies. She’s a prolific and award-winning journalist who has spent the past decade scooping stories for the Globe and Mail, Global News, and her current employer, Reuters, among others. She’s also often on social media under the handle @amp6.
I’ve followed Mehler Paperny on Twitter since 2009 or 2010, my interest caught by an overlap in the topics we cover and her consistent ability to bring original ideas and fresh angles to my attention. In the years that followed, we occasionally replied to each other’s public messages and once or twice compared notes in DMs. During all that time, I never had the faintest idea that Mehler Paperny was fighting for her life.
The first time she tried to kill herself—as Mehler Paperny recounts in her new book, Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me: Depression in the First Person—it was with a cocktail of sleeping pills and antifreeze. “What scares me most is what I don’t remember,” she writes. “Waking fuzzily in the ICU days later, Velcro ties strapping my wrists and forearms to cold metal railings ringing the bed.…I discovered I was wearing a hospital gown and attached to a catheter (the latter, especially, not something you want to take you by surprise).”
With blunt honesty, relatable humour, and a journalist’s insatiable curiosity and research skills, the Vancouver-raised, Toronto-based author takes readers along on an expansive investigation of depression, suicide, and our best attempts to treat mental illness.
Since the age of 24, Mehler Paperny has tried eight times to take her own life. She was briefly institutionalized for her own protection. She’s cycled through 14 different medications in dozens of different combinations. “Some drugs made me trembly, some made me antsy, one made me sweaty,” she writes. “One made me sneeze endlessly; some made me nauseous, especially on an empty stomach, especially with an espresso on an empty stomach, which makes for less than pleasant morning commutes.”
In a phone interview, Mehler Paperny laughs when I suggest she’s gained unique insight into Canada’s mental-health-care system. I ask her, how do we fix it? She laughs again. Before we attempt to improve or overhaul mental-health care, Mehler Paperny explains, we first have to do a much better job facilitating access to the existing system. “What we have is not good enough, but we’re not even getting what we have to the people who need it,” she says.
“Psychotherapy is only covered if you get it from a medical doctor, which would be reasonable if it were easy to access medical doctors who can provide psychotherapy, but, so frequently, it is not,” Mehler Paperny continues. “Also, unless you have specialized insurance, drugs aren’t covered. So the two main treatment methods that we have for mental illness—pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy—are not automatically covered by Canada’s health-care system.”
The tone of Hello I Want to Die is often light or casual to a degree that would be painfully insensitive if Mehler Paperny were writing about anyone but herself. But her quick wit and self-deprecating jokes effectively break through the stigma that too often inhibits open discussions of severe mental illness and suicide. And we must destroy that stigma, she says, because it has very real consequences—for example, Canada’s failure to adequately fund mental-health care and make it accessible.
“It shows how far we need to come in terms of treating this like a real illness,” Mehler Paperny adds. “We pay for things that we take seriously, and right now, we are not taking this seriously.”
Anna Mehler Paperny will appear at the Vancouver Writers Fest on Tuesday (October 22). Anyone feeling distress about the health issues described in this story can call the Crisis Line (604-872-3311) or visit a hospital emergency room.