Addressing the Elephant in the Room

Mental illness isn’t always crying and rocking back and forth, said St. Thomas University student Ashley Thornton. (Aaron Sousa/AQ)

St. Thomas University student and co-president of the STU Mental Health Society Ashley Thornton said society sees mental illness as people crying and rocking back and forth, but that isn’t always the case.

That’s why the Mental Health Society hosted the Elephant in the Room event on Jan. 24 at Kinsella Auditorium. Their aim was to educate the community about mental health and address the stigma surrounding it.

Panelists at the event included New Brunswick Green Party leader David Coon, Ceilah Keats of the Thomas Keats Organization, former support worker Allan Duguay, Wolf Pack for Life CEO Delaney Bonvie, Thornton, STU Mental Health wellness coordinator Claire Leighton and Patrice Cammarano, founder and co-president of STU Mental Health.

Bonvie, also the owner of GoodLife Printing and Company, spoke about what it’s like to be an entrepreneur struggling with mental illness. She has borderline personality disorder, panic disorder and persistent depressive disorder.

Bonvie said she struggled with mental health in her adolescence, causing her to “barely scrape by” in high school. She decided to not pursue post-secondary education and found herself stuck with low-wage, entry-level jobs.

She said most people with mental illnesses are too busy worrying about their next paycheque to take time for themselves.

“Society is so draining to people because we have to spend so much time working to just survive,” Bonvie said.

“It leaves us utterly exhausted with no time, or even limited capacity, to properly tend to ourselves.”

Coon said he’s been advocating for the provincial government to improve mental health care. While the Department of Health has looked into studies about mental health, Coon said they’ve done nothing about it.

“[Mental health care] has been seen as a ‘poor cousin’ in the Department of Health,” Coon said.

“Everyone who’s trying to access the services knows it.”

He said New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs asked Dorothy Shepard, the minister of social development, to “spearhead an effort to breathe new life into the government’s way of approaching mental health care.”

Still, Coon said the province isn’t doing “nearly enough” as it should.

On the Government of New Brunswick website, there’s a list of mental health resources including links to community mental health centres, psychiatric and addiction services and tips on how to cope with stress.

STU offers counselling services and the peer support centre.

Coon said he’s proud to see New Brunswickers come together to talk about mental health. 

“The issues of mental health and mental illness have been very private for a very long time, and now that they’re more public, the stigma is starting to reduce,” he said.

Thornton, who has high-functioning depression, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, anxiety, panic disorder and PTSD, is pursuing a double-major in psychology and criminology with a double-minor in human rights and French. On top of this, she has three jobs and extracurricular activities. 

With high-functioning mental illnesses, Thornton said some people believe she doesn’t have it as bad as others. Some even accuse her of faking her mental illnesses for attention.

“These things were told to me by my fellow peers and even other people who have mental illnesses, which I think shows how strong the stigma is,” Thornton said.

“Just because someone doesn’t appear ill to you, doesn’t mean that’s not true.”