Don’t let the stigma of mental illness keep you from helping others – or getting help yourself.
It was a shock when I learned that my Aunt Janet had taken her own life during the summer past (2017). Before mental illness overtook her as an adult, she had shown great promise. When she was young, before I knew her, she had excelled in school. She had easily picked up not only piano but music theory. She was athletic. She taught herself to paint.
But this potential was cut short. Aunt Janet suffered from schizophrenia (she was in her fifties when she died). This illness tortured her and put a massive strain on our family, a strain that was almost entirely hidden from me during my youth. Severe mental illness hits an estimated one in five Canadians during their lifetime, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, but there is a lot of stigma and we mostly prefer not to talk about it.
As a child I saw Janet as a close friend, almost another one of the kids. I did think she was different. Her hair was a little greasy and she smoked cigarettes, but I could relate to her better than many adults. As a kid I saw her only during the good times, but her illness ran out of control for more than 20 years.
During those years my parents worked endlessly to get her the help she needed, something that she herself and others pushed back against. Eventually my father got Janet admitted to a mental hospital and her treatment began.
With care, she was able to live a healthy, happy life in a group home in downtown Halifax, NS. The illness, left untreated for so many years, made it impossible for her to ever return to a “normal” life, let alone marry or join the workforce. That being said, she did lead a meaningful life. Every morning she went to a McDonalds near her house. She had a lot of friends who would meet her there and she was a regular at her local church.
The reason I am writing this is two-fold: 1) Even though she lived a troubled, then simple, life, her story needs to be told. 2) Everyone’s life has value, whether or not they can give back to society in a traditional sense. Janet was never going to able to work and pay taxes, but she has had a positive influence on the people around her.
A testament to this is her large group of friends. I would visit her at the McDonalds and meet her friends, and I can tell you that her existence made theirs better. A lot of people will miss her. This includes some who are homeless and mentally and physically ill.
It’s not like Janet chose to be schizophrenic. Her homeless friends didn’t choose that path. Mental illness is a problem costing Canada an estimated $51 million a year and it’s our responsibility as a society to help those affected.
My parents worked hard to give Janet a better quality of life. This included doctor visits, psychiatrist appointments, social worker meetings, even trips to the police station. Thanks to my parents and all the professionals who worked with her, she had many good years, right up to the end.
The real Janet was a great person. She had a youthful personality and was a positive influence on everyone around her. She always called me “Benny.” When I would tell her about my life, she would say, “Wow! That’s great, Benny!” I cherish my memories of her.
Those with mental illness depend on the support of their community. If you know someone in need, talk to a health care practitioner. Find out how you can help.
Author: Benjamin Holt is a musician living in Denton, Texas. He is part of the jazz duo, Song Dynasty. Ben is the son of David Holt, the Associate Publisher of OptiMYz. His Aunt Janet was David’s youngest sister. She died in the summer of 2017.