Chantal Kreviazuk on her family’s struggle with mental illness
NationalPost.com – Ampersand/music – First Person
February 8, 2011. Chantal Kreviazuk
To mark Bell’s Let’s Talk Day, a new annual campaign dedicated to encouraging a national conversation about mental health in the country, the Post spoke with a few Canadian celebrities in an effort to reduce the stigma attached to mental illness. Here, Juno Award-winning singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk shares her family’s experiences with mental health. (As told to Melissa Leong)
I wrote my film, Pretty Broken, five years ago, at a time when I felt hopeless. Pretty Broken is a 13-minute short film that ran at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s about someone with bipolar disorder who has just been admitted and they’re in a hypomanic state of having a lot of thoughts, a lot of anger and narcissism. I emulated a person that I know and I created this improvised episode of mania.
I am very close to the person in my family who has been affected by mental illness. I must have been 13 or 14 when I first saw it. At that time, the episode was mania. Before that, we had seen the depression side. With the depression side, you feel like being there for them and you love them so much because they’re so vulnerable. But the face of mania is hideous. It is humiliating. It is scary. But you can see that the person is still in there during depression, with their regret and their feelings of shame. That’s the time that you get the hope again. You’re on a roller coaster ride with them. It’s hell.
It’s very shocking when your family is suddenly thrown into this world that you’ve never seen before because it’s hidden — the mental health world. There are limited treatments available. When you go to visit your loved one, it isn’t a far stretch from a scene out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The starkness of the setting — there is nothing around. There are lifeless, soulless rooms. There’s a television, there’s some light pouring into the room. Everything that could stimulate is gone.
Seeing your loved one in that scary setting after you’ve only seen them in a world filled with life is so traumatic for your soul. One of the things that was said to me early on was, “Well Chantal, what you have to understand is if there is someone sick in your family, then you are all sick.”
The mental health world in America has a statistic: the average diagnosis takes 30 years. How frightening is that? If there was another organ of your body that needed 30 years to get to the core of the [problem], that would not be acceptable. After the some-20 years of being pulled into the process — the cycle of the stopwatch medicating, stabilizing the patient and then throwing them back out to the conscious world — Pretty Broken was my person going, “No, there has to be a better way.”
I see a lot of families give up. In fact, I have been told that on average, the typical family gives up after just a dozen episodes. I understand why they do. But my family didn’t give up and after two decades, we had our miracle happen. Now my loved one is in a setting that is hopeful and sensible; it’s civilized and compassionate. No one is expecting something to happen over night. Holistic care is something that reflects long-term hope and long-term possibilities.
My message today would be: don’t give up. If your instincts tell you that the treatment doesn’t feel right, it might not be right. Great treatments involve the individual recognizing and taking responsibility for themselves, their disorder and their medication. The individual must “unlearn” their attitude of entitlement, and shift it to one of overall responsibility and service.
The system has a major role to play in this process. So often, people are misdiagnosed and only their presenting symptoms are treated. There are many dangers to approaches taken in the past and present to helping people affected with a wide variety of mood disorders, diseases and addictions. The system needs to make sure it arms all of our doctors with the information and possibilities that are out there for treatment.
We’re at a turning point in our society and we have the opportunity because we know how we can help people in their journey to get well. This is the time for us to stop disregarding the pink elephant in the room. We need to become cognizant about it and talk about it. Canada is the model in our world for treating others with respect, dignity and compassion. I have first hand knowledge that we’re not meeting our standards. I believe we can do better and we should. We need to demand better alternatives and better care.
For more information on Let’s Talk Day, visit letstalk.bell.ca.
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