Event Summary: Stories across the Lifespan
On June 5, 2018, “Stories across the Lifespan: Depression and Bipolar Disorder” was held at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute in Toronto, Ontario. This collaborative community outreach event was jointly held by two research organizations, the Canadian Biomarker Integration Network in Depression (CAN-BIND) and the St. Michael’s Hospital Arthur Sommer Rotenberg Suicide and Depression Studies Program (ASR), and a community-based peer support organization, the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario (MDAO).
This event was the first in the new series called “Stories across the Lifespan”, which brings together persons with lived experience of mental illness across different age groups and walks of life. Well-received by attendees, the inaugural event on June 5th was described as “uplifting and informative” and it “evoked honest emotion”. Several attendees expressed interest in more initiatives in the same vein. “Bring this on the road to schools, businesses, malls” one event feedback respondent wrote.
“Bring this on the road to schools, businesses, malls”
The event series was created by Sakina Rizvi, PhD, who emceed the evening of presentations along with PhD Candidate Tian Renton. “Our aim is to provide insight about what it means to have a mood disorder for those currently struggling or for siblings, parents, grandparents or friends of those with a mental illness” says Rizvi. “Attendees will be able to reflect on, and gain awareness of, the differences in mental health presentation and experiences across the lifespan. This will allow us to achieve our goal to de-stigmatize mental illness and inspire hope in those across generations living with a mood disorder as well as their family and friends.”
Three lived experience speakers shared their personal stories, including dark times and personal triumphs. The first speaker was Finn Pihl, a 15 year-old mental health community leader who is bringing awareness to youth mental illness. He gave his first keynote speech at just 11 years of age, and has since made a significant impact both within his community in Kelowna, BC, as well as nationally. Reflecting on his early mental health struggles, Finn said that others held misconceptions that he was a spoiled kid who “couldn’t control [his] emotions”. He stressed the importance of understanding and recognizing the signs of mental illness, especially in youth. Finn also described the difficult balance that parents of a child with mental illness face, noting “it is a tight rope to balance between helping them and giving them the space to build strength and persevere on their own”.
The second speaker, Kathryn Schade, represented the mid-life age group. Kathryn is a member of the Community Advisory Committee for both the CAN-BIND Program and the ASR Program and has recently been named to the Patient Engagement in Research Community of Practice at the Council of Academic Hospitals of Ontario. She began by asking the audience to imagine living in darkness for 19 years. Her depression symptoms started while she was studying at university, when her academic success was taking off. From there, her battle with depression was long and trying—she took over 40 different antidepressants and at one point, she “could no longer remember what it felt like to be well”. After years of darkness, hope came months into her deep brain stimulation (DBS) treatment. She described the emotional day when she “began to see in colour again”. Kathryn has been depression-free for 10 years. She emphasized that recovery is hard work and encourages others to keep persevering. “No matter how hopeless you feel,” Kathryn said, “there is always hope.” Attendees described her talk as “meaningful” and “moving”. Her story has been featured in the National Post.
“No matter how hopeless you feel…there is always hope.”
Caroline Fei-Yeng Kwok was the third and final lived experience speaker who represented the senior age group. Caroline is a mental health advocate with special interests in immigrant mental health, recovery-oriented practice and recovery education. She spoke about her fear of psychiatrists when she first came to Canada from Hong Kong, and about the importance of appreciating cultural diversity in psychiatric management. One of her key messages was that knowledge is power. Knowledge of the health care system and medications helped her “gain the confidence to…communicate [her] feelings and thoughts”. Having someone who believed in her strengths was also critical to her recovery. Caroline is a published author of Free to Fly: A Story of Manic Depression, which is available in English and Chinese.
The final presentation was given by Dr. Benjamin Goldstein, who provided the clinical and research perspective about mental health across the lifespan. Dr. Goldstein is the Director of the Centre for Youth Bipolar Disorder and Director of Research in the Department of Psychiatry at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. He spoke to the connection between heart health and mental health; individuals with bipolar disorder have an increased risk of heart disease. He is a part of a research team with diverse expertise—including in psychiatry, ophthalmology, neurology and medical imaging—which is studying the heart-brain link. His research could help develop new treatment approaches for bipolar disorder, and help to decrease the stigma around mental illness. Dr. Goldstein underscored the importance of collaborative research. “Bringing together interdisciplinary teams will help accelerate research progress”.
The event concluded with a stimulating question and answer period. Topics included the effects of social media on youth mental health, access to care and recovery programs, and how to support loved ones who are reluctant to receive or continue clinical care. “The common denominator was the inspiration”, Dr. Sidney Kennedy, lead of CAN-BIND and the ASR Programs, said of the four presentations in his concluding remarks. “Thank you for four back-to-back impactful talks”.
Follow CAN-BIND, ASR and MDAO on social media for information about future events in the “Stories across the Lifespan” series. Our aim is for these events to inspire open dialogue about mental health, to create community, and to spread the message that if you’re struggling with mental health challenges, you are not alone.
Written by Janice Pong
Edited by Susan Rotzinger