Mental Health Warrior: Jean-François Claude

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I am absolutely thrilled and privileged to be able to feature this brilliant advocate on The Lithium Chronicles Mental Health Warrior series. Jean-François (J.F.) Claude is the founder of The Men’s Depression Education Network (Men’s D.E.N.), a distinguished mental health speaker, devoted father, and a great man in general. He volunteers his time with the incredible Canadian non-profit, Partners For Mental Health on their Community Action team in Ottawa, and now as a part of their Speakers’ Bureau. In 2014, J-F was instrumental in the enacting of a City of Ottawa Proclamation of a Men’s Mental Health Awareness Day. Now an annual observance, Men’s Mental Health Awareness Day in Ottawa will be celebrated on June 16th, 2015. Thank you, J-F for all that you do for Men’s Mental Health Awareness. You shine a bright light on important issues that too often remain dark. You give us all hope, and you lead by a fine example. I am so proud to know you, and I bow in gratitude.

Suicide, Stigma, And Men’s Mental Health

An Adapted Speech

 By Jean François-Claude

INTRODUCTION

Before you read any further, I invite you to avert your gaze from this space for the next 40 seconds. Don’t scroll down, just take a 40-second moment and pause what you are doing right now.

Welcome back… in the space of the 40-second time-out I foisted on you, somewhere in the world, someone felt so alone… so empty… and so worthless… that they believed they had no other option left but to take their own life.

According to the World Health Organization, last year there were 800,000 deaths by suicide world-wide.

One every 40 seconds.

Despite living in the 5th happiest country in the world, we in Canada are not immune to this silent epidemic that is suicide. We see just under 4,000 deaths by suicide per year.

That’s 11 Canadians… Every. Single. Day.

And 8 of these 11 preventable deaths – yes, preventable deaths – are men and boys. Boys as young as age 11.

We also know that, for every suicide act completed, another 20 to 25 people are unsuccessful in their attempt.

To put all this into perspective, consider this: suicide kills more people in Canada than car accidents, murders, drownings, HIV and military actions… COMBINED.

Where is the public outcry?

So when the Canadian Mental Health Association invited Canadians across the country this year to #GETLOUD for male mental health during Canadian Mental Health Week, I answered the call.

I hope you will too. And not just during awareness months, weeks or day… but every week, every day, moving forward.

STIGMA AND THE POWER OF STORIES

These facts and stats most likely surprised many of you. It may also surprise you to learn that mental illness – found in 90% of suicides – is actually more common than heart disease or diabetes.

And even though 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental health issue this year – up to 1 in 3 in their lifetime – mental illness receives less attention – and less funding – than most other health conditions.

Why? Stigma.

Because we really don’t understand mental illness, we’re afraid to talk about it. We’re even more afraid to admit to it. Fueled by ignorance, fear breeds stigma. And for those living with mental health issues, the stigma leads to shame… silence… withdrawal… isolation…and, all too often, suicide.

Now, remember: it wasn’t so long ago that we only whispered about cancer… or HIV/AIDS.

To end the stigma, those of us living with mental illness must show strength and courage, be brave enough to step out of the shadows and #GETLOUD to ensure our voices are heard.

Because getting loud, talking about it and sharing our stories gives hope to those who suffer in silence. We are living proof that they are not alone…that help is available…that life does get better with treatment.

And that’s why I share my story of living with depression and anxiety.

THE BREAKDOWN

To set the stage for you, let me take you back almost three years, to the week before Father’s Day 2012.

For as long as I could remember, my whole identity was wrapped up in my job and in my volunteer roles. I poured all of my energy, my thoughts and my time into these pursuits. And by any external measure, I was doing so quite successfully. I was on track to join the executive ranks within my place of employment. I was a leader in my home community.

I was, without any doubt, a workaholic. No work-life balance. No real down-time. No ability to relax… to take pleasure in leisure activities… to genuinely enjoy all that life had to offer.

The build-up of stress, the repression of emotions and the suppression of my own needs to satisfy the desires of others were finally catching up to me.

Fatigue, insomnia, and hypersomnia. Anger, irritability, and frustration. Headaches, backaches and stomach aches. I was experiencing them all. And as I later discovered, these are all classic behavioural signs and physical symptoms of depression in men.

Not burnout. Depression.

An emotional breakdown while working late one night at the office was the breakthrough moment that made me finally reach out for help. The realization that there was no explaining to my 4-year old son why again and again Daddy wasn’t home for dinner… wasn’t home for bath time… and wasn’t home for bedtime stories… was more than I could bear.

THE BREAKTHROUGH

The first line of treatment for depression is antidepressant medication. At first, I refused to go on medication. I refused to believe I had depression.

Everything I knew about depression pointed to it running in families. I wasn’t aware of any related family history.

That is, until the day my mother said to me she had been on anti-depressants – or these “little pills for her nerves” as she called them – for the past fifteen years. And this was the first I’d heard of it. So a family history of both anxiety and depression – on both sides of my family – came to light.

The reign of silence was finally broken.

Stigma really is all-pervasive. Even within our own families, we don’t talk about mental illness. And this causes unnecessary delays in getting treatment.

It was three weeks later that I truly accepted that going on medication had been for the better. That’s when, completely out of the blue one day, my then 7-year old daughter came up to me, gave me a huge hug and kiss, and said:

“I love the new Daddy.”

My daughter’s words made me realize the impact anxiety and depression have not only on the individuals directly touched, but also on their loved ones.

As it turns out, I had, more than likely, been coping with anxiety and depression since my teenage years. That’s when the vast majority of mental illnesses have their initial onset.

And until age 40, I’d had no idea. Not before reaching a point when I could no longer function at work. A point when my natural coping mechanisms – my usual resilience – failed me.

There’s nothing special about my story of mental illness. No failed suicide attempt. No spectacular public meltdown. No sensationalist self-destruction to make news headline writers salivate

But what I believe makes my story compelling is that, it is so typical, it could very well be anyone’s story… even your story.

Because mental illness is very common, and doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care if you are male or female… black or white… young or old… rich or poor. It can – and does – touch each and every one of you reading this piece.

CALL TO ACTION

Now, I’m one of the lucky ones. Through my employer, I had access to banked sick leave for the 2.5 months I was off work… access to a 24/7 Employee and Family Assistance Program… access to generous drug and health plan benefits for medication and psychological services.

I also had the love and support of my wife and children, and of close family and friends.

But many in our community are not so lucky.

Mental illness really is one of the last social taboos of our time. And given the lack of parity in mental health care in this country, I would even go as far as saying it’s our generation’s last remaining civil rights battle.

Only by tackling head-on the stigma around mental illness can we break the silence.

Breaking the silence CAN be done… one voice at a time. Your voice. My voice. Our collective voiceThat’s why, after reading this article, I’m asking you to do three things:

1.     Start the conversation with a family member, friend or colleague you suspect may be suffering in silence. Take them aside. Write them a letter or an e-mail. Pick up the phone. Let them know that you are there for them. That you care. That they matter.

2.     Bend the ear of any politician who crosses your path. Let them know you believe psychological services should be covered under our public health care. That psychiatric wait times are unacceptable. That more investments in mental health are needed. And,

3.     Make a donation to a national or local mental health organization. Every donation counts in the fight against stigma and in tackling the inequity in mental health treatment and services.

Only by joining our voices together can we really #GETLOUD to create a resounding chorus for change.

And that change can – and must – start with each and every one of us.

Right now.

Jean-Francois

About J-F Claude

“Depression? Make Mine a Double…”

If Jean-François (J.-F.) Claude were ever prone to put pen to paper to publish an autobiography, biochemistry and genetics have already chosen the title for him.

Who knew his high-school nickname of “Mr. Mood” was a precursor of things to come… 25 years later.

Diagnosed with Double Depression in 2012 at age 40 – with Generalized Anxiety Disorder later thrown into the mix, just to keep him perpetually on his toes – J.-F. Claude has turned adversity into advocacy for men’s mental health.  He is the founder of TheMensDEN.ca (The Men’s D.epression E.ducation N.etwork), a blog and Web portal to online information, resources and e-tools focussed on depression in men.

J.-F. was also instrumental in the enacting of a City of Ottawa Proclamation of a Men’s Mental Health Awareness Day on June 10, 2014, in the week leading up to Fathers’ Day. Now an annual observance, Men’s Mental Health Awareness Day in Ottawa will be celebrated on June 16, 2015.

When @DysthymicDad manages to free himself from his Twitter following, J.-F. also volunteers with Partners for Mental Health’s Community Action Team in Ottawa and, more recently, its Speakers’ Bureau.  His day-job as a manager with the federal government is what pays the bills.

On the home front, two Hearts and a Diamond led to eventual membership in the Parents’ Club, a young lady and master bringing energy in Spades to the household.  A curtain-climbing kitten named Cuddles helps J.-F. keep The Black Dog at bay, despite the canine-like qualities the Ragdoll breed exhibits.

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