Stories matter. The New Mentality is designed to give voice to people’s stories that often don’t get heard. Stories communicate. Stories help people matter. Here is my story.
When I was growing up, I couldn’t talk about schizophrenia. Every time I would share that both my parents had the illness, I got the same looks of horror, fear and pity. The stigma for me and my parents was debilitating. We carried deep shame and hid our experience as dark secrets not to be discussed. I did have a grandmother that volunteered for the Schizophrenia Society in the 1980s and 1990s. She taught me how to type on a typewriter and also how to remain steadfast in my connection and love of my dad despite his illness. I wonder what she’d say to know that I continued her legacy.
Going back to the stigma, deeply ingrained in me was the ideas that if you show your feelings, people would think you are crazy and lock you up. I must have got this from my parents who were ‘locked up’ in hospital for years and years. It wasn’t until The New Mentality, did I ever talk about mental health in public. My own fear and shame prevented me.
After many failed attempts, I found a youth counselor when I was 21 that helped me with my post-traumatic stress and anxiety. I was abused my mother’s boyfriends and not given the food or care I needed growing up. I was abandoned many times to foster homes or extended family. For years, my mental health left me socially isolated, closed-hearted and hopeless. I often considered jumping off a bridge or building to escape the pain. I tried drugs and drinking to numb the pain. I let myself be controlled by others as I lacked the confidence I was worthy or capable. I am sharing this because my own lived experience of mental illness is what inspired me to build the New Mentality.
I developed a relationship to Mike, my counselor, when I was volunteering at a youth drop-in program. It is a unique program run by the children’s aid societies in Toronto. Downstairs there were programming rooms where youth led the groups and upstairs there were child and youth workers who were available for drop-in or scheduled sessions. Mike, my counsellor, allowed me to decide when I came and what we talked about. There was no maximum number of sessions or strict parameters. He showed me how to gain control over the memories and thoughts of my past that repeated in my head. He did this without asking me to talk about those memories but rather use the power of visualization and affirmation to change my habits.
This model of treatment had a profound impact on me. I experienced the healing power of volunteering with the supplementary power of the traditional counselling relationship. The flexible intake process, space, and non-medical approach I received showed me the power of community-based mental health services and their potential. When I was given the opportunity to lead The New Mentality, I hoped to advocate for more services like this one that gave opportunities for youth to volunteer and contribute to show they matter as well as talk to a counsellor who would reinforce the message and provide skills and techniques.
Learning to Love Schizophrenics
I was hesitant to accept the job as Coordinator back in 2007. “Oh no!” I thought. “How am I ever going to make peace with mental illness?” Mental illness had abused me. Mental illness took away my parents. Mental illness left me traumatized and anxious. How would I ever rally people and tell everyone not to be afraid or ashamed when I was? It would also be hard for me to hear the painful stories of the youth with whom I was going to work as I hadn’t yet learned how to talk about my own post-traumatic stress disorder and experiences with mental illness.
What was even scarier was to meet youth with schizophrenia. I had never met other schizophrenics besides my parents. I expected these youth to trigger my own memories and traumas. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to connect, lead or support people with an illness that took so much away from me.
I did get triggered sometimes, but surprisingly not from those suffering from mental illness. I was able to relate and connect easily with people of all kinds. It was deeply healing and it brought me closer to my own parents with whom I could more easily relate. The triggers that were the hardest to overcome were of the hospitals and institutions providing care for the mentally ill.
I can remember the first time I went to Ontario Shores. It was a renovated sanatorium like the one in Guelph where I used to visit my parents. I was in cold sweats on my way over there. I had to have a friend drive me and wait for me in the parking lot. That meeting was so brief, I barely registered it. It was a standard networking and introduction meeting and when the host invited us to take a tour, I almost broke into tears. Like exposure therapy, it was a gift to confront my fears. To have meetings of a different nature in these buildings playing a role not as a child but as a grown woman was a gift.
For years, I would support youth to be shameless about talking about mental health. It was through their courage and through this process that I unwound years of generational pain and shame surrounding mental illness. My time with The New Mentality helped me learn to love schizophrenics. It gave me experiences of cooperation, fun and shared purpose with people who were just like my parents. I met others, who like me had been abused and suicidal and who were not afraid to talk about it. The conditions were created for powerful stories of pain and transformation to be shared and told and in turn it transformed me too.
Volunteerism as Therapy
The New Mentality has neither the research nor the structure to call itself a therapeutic intervention. However, it is hard to deny that the outcomes of participating are therapeutic. Anecdotally, I know that The New Mentality has saved lives through its process of connecting people to others and to a purpose larger than one’s self. I like to think of this kind of volunteerism as the best therapy I ever had.
The New Mentality asks a person to dig deep to create, to use story, to believe they matter, and to relate. This is ‘meaningful’ in ‘meaningful youth engagement’ practice for which we strive. In some volunteer programs, a person is asked to arrive, follow instructions and depart. Hopefully there is some reciprocity in there for the volunteer in terms of learning or network building. The New Mentality was always more risky and demanding than that.
It is risky and demanding to ask a lot of people who are emotionally or mentally unstable. In fact, some think you shouldn’t ask youth with mental illness to volunteer or do too much because they aren’t up to it or because they can’t handle it. Certainly, there are various roles within the New Mentality so people can choose their own level of engagement. There is a weekly group member. Sometimes participation every week isn’t required so this is great for those who need lots of freedom and choice. Then you can be a Group Facilitator taking leadership for the group and for planning projects. Then there are provincial roles where youth can volunteer on committees or projects for the whole network. These certainly have the most responsibilities as they impact not just one group but the whole network of 16 groups.
I knew of the power of volunteerism from my own experience as a youth volunteer. I volunteered for six years with the Pape Adolescent Resource Centre- first as a participant and then as a facilitator. I had a thick shell to come out of when I began volunteering. The stigma of foster care that I described above was still deeply felt and I remained silent often.
The group had several important aspects that supported youth leadership. I tried to embed these within The New Mentality group model. It was hosted by one staff of the agency that would ensure structure, funding, safety and food was present. The purpose of the committee was to prepare and support youth to be consultants to staff and partner agencies about the needs of youth in care. We had funding for food and a small honorarium for facilitators and we also did our own fundraising.
The best fundraising strategy was a community partnership with Toronto Public Health to do sexual health workshops for youth living in group homes. These youth were shown to be at a higher risk for sexually transmitted infections and early pregnancy. We could relate more easily with them and so could talk about safer sex and consent better than staff, teachers or the Public Health Nurses. Each time our group did one of these workshops, we would each get $50. Each workshop had 2 or 3 facilitators. Facilitators donated their money back to the group to support different projects and social events the group wanted to do.
I learned a great deal from this group and I healed a great deal from this group. I learned to shamelessly talk about being a youth in care. I learned the joy of relating to others with similar experiences. I learned how to not isolate socially and enjoy the company of others. My years as a youth volunteer with PARC were formative. I had lived and experienced the power of participating in a group where everyone had overcome significant challenges. But the focus of our group wasn’t our difficulties. It was our strengths. We were active contributors to something larger than ourselves. We were helping new staff, and group home kids and agencies. We were treated as resources not problems and that helped us see our histories in a new light. This is the kind of experience I wanted to bring youth across Ontario through The New Mentality.
To me, the process of working for something bigger than one’s self and really using one’s skills, experience and knowledge is healing. Again, it is asset focused. It doesn’t dwell on what a person can’t do or their pathologies of anxiety, depress, control or delusion. It says, “Yes, you are welcome in the circle. You are needed in the circle. Come Contribute to the circle.” This is the greatest kind of honoring and healing opportunity a person can receive- to be included meaningfully. This is why I think of meaningfully volunteering as therapy.
Volunteering was a chance to give my experience meaning to say that it mattered to something bigger; that I mattered to a larger whole than just myself. There’s numbness and isolation that I experienced suffering in silence from my own mental health challenges. We all need meaning and we all have to connect to something bigger than ourselves. Volunteering did this for me.
Mental Health is a part of each and every person. We are all physical, emotional and mental beings. We all get the flu and we all get stressed. We can relate with this shared human experience. It is a little harder to relate to someone who is on the extreme of health or disease and we are scared we too might get sick because, we know, deep down we all have so much in common. Making peace with illness and suffering is a hero’s journey for sure. To look into the eyes of someone in agony and feel both the agony with them and the brilliant humanity that never goes away is remarkable.
To truly walk without stigma of mental illness is to confront your own fear and suffering and let it go. This is not a completed journey for me but I am certainly closer than I was before The New Mentality. I have been showed over and over again by young people diagnosed with schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, depression, anxiety, anorexia that these conditions exist simultaneously with an inalienable human dignity. This dignity, this humanity, this compassionate, creative life giver energy exists within us all. Yes, we shouldn’t ignore the pain and only look for the beauty. Compassion is born out of pain and so too is healing .Yet at the same time, we have to always understand the beauty too.
Youth Engagement as a practice works because youth aren’t just viewed as problems that need fixing by counselling agencies. They are viewed as resources and assets that can help. A new balance can be struck between helper and ‘helpee’ where there is more fluidity between the roles and greater shared responsibility. This model of volunteerism, of youth-serving agencies works and will continue to work and like cognitive-behaviour therapy or yoga or meditation, it continues to work so long as it continues to be practiced with consciousness, strength and great joy.
– Catherine Dyer