Yesterday was the last day of Suicide Awareness Week. It was also my brothers birthday. But for me, like millions of others around the world it doesn’t end this month or this week or on September 15th. How I see the world and the people in it was forever changed just after 3 am on March 18, 2012.
I see you. I see the ones so ashamed and scared to speak the truth. I see trauma. I see secrets. I see family members fighting and blaming. I often see doctors and therapists looking in the wrong direction. I see our loved ones dying. I see love. I see hope. Mostly I see love and hope.
I come from a long line of alcoholics, which is now known as substance use disorder (SUD). I say this with complete love and respect for my loved ones, and even though no one discussed this within my family, from the time I was a 5-year-old child it was impossible to ignore as I could see the devastation, heartbreak, and struggle with my own two eyes.
However, what wasn’t so obvious was that mental illness also ran in our family. Anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder was, and continues to be, a well-kept family secret.
But silence and secrets perpetuate an unhealthy environment of shame. I know, because I was that little girl once, the one who overheard secret whispers. And although no one told me directly, the message was loud and clear, “Addiction and mental illness are shameful, you don’t ask questions; you look the other way and you hide them at all costs.”
We need to begin the conversation in our own homes. No one will ever find the courage to seek help or speak publicly if we can’t even speak about these topics privately in our own families.
My son, Ryan, started struggling with severe anxiety in Grade 1. With no explanation, advice, or whisper from my family that this might be a non-obvious kind of illness — something that is sometimes called an “invisible illness.” His dad and I were left on our own for months trying to maneuver our way through what was causing his panic attacks and tears. At appointment after appointment, while poking and prodding Ryan, and carrying out countless blood tests and medical exams, doctors assured us there was nothing wrong with him physically.
I was tortured. What is happening with my little boy? How can I make this better for him?
With no other explanation at the time, I was convinced that he must have been sexually abused at school. I was so relieved to find out eventually that I was wrong. I can’t help but think about how much time, effort, and unnecessary trauma we caused our young son. Had we known earlier about the mental illness in our family tree, we might have all walked an easier path.
Years later, we lost that much-loved member of our family — a sweet, kind, sensitive, soft-spoken man — to alcohol addiction and mental illness. My younger brother, Brett, Ryan’s uncle, lost his brave battle in March 2012. He was 39. I watched helplessly as shame and discomfort stopped him from talking about his feelings, broke down his spirit, and made him feel that the situation was hopeless.
And it wasn’t hopeless.
I was raised in the 1970s. It wouldn’t have been a reasonable expectation to have these open discussions back then, and I accept that. But I can’t help wondering if things might have turned out differently for my brother if we had worked through some of our early childhood trauma in our adult lives.
But we can’t go back; life is about moving forward. My perspective is that I am blessed and proud to be part of a changing world where we are encouraged to speak openly and honestly about our experiences, including addiction and mental health. And I believe that encouragement starts with young children.
Years later, Ryan and I were reminded once again that life has unexpected challenges and doesn’t always go as planned.
On June 3rd, 2017, I had a mental health breakdown that landed me in the hospital.
One day I was myself; the next day I wasn’t. During the next twelve months, I came to understand firsthand what it is like to wrestle with thoughts and feelings you can’t control, thoughts that plague your mind every waking moment as I fought my way through fear, anxiety and clinical depression.
Since my son was a little boy, I tried to do things differently than how it was done in my family when I was a child. Ryan and I have always talked about things openly, ever since that first experience when he was 6 years old. We discussed understanding his feelings and anxiety, and later addiction and the dangers of self-medicating with alcohol. We did that all so that he is aware not only of himself, but has empathy and compassion for others; you never know what someone else is going through.
I have two young nieces who were only 6 and 13 when their beloved Uncle Brett died. Unlike other family members of mine, I have spoken to my nieces openly and truthfully ever since that very day. As they grow up, I talk about the topic more in-depth, being sensitive to how old they are at the time; always with honesty, love, and without shame.
My niece Kaddi is now 12 she graduated last year from the sixth grade. The class had to do an oral report on a topic that meant something to them, and she chose alcoholism. She is as comfortable speaking about it as she is with the knowledge that her grandmother passed away from breast cancer before she was born. I was overwhelmed with pride and thought to myself, “I hope that teacher knows how amazing and brave that little girl is.”
Her sister, Payton, is now 19. She has a big bold tattoo on her left arm of bear paws bearing Brett’s name. When people ask what it means, she answers kindly, lovingly, and honestly, “That is my uncle who struggled with alcoholism and died by suicide.”
When we talk honestly and openly to our children, they can grow up to have no stigma or judgment toward those struggling through addiction and/or mental illness. These young children will not only grow up to be more aware but to be more empathetic, kind, caring, and compassionate as they maneuver their way in this world and lead others to be more kind and caring too.
I am proud to see those qualities in my son; he is no longer a child, but a 25-year-old man. It should not go unnoticed that one of the traits I am most proud of is his desire to challenge himself and come out of his comfort zone. As he is typically more reserved and has a quiet personality. His commitment to help others by being a positive role model not only to young boys but to grown men is admired. He knows that it does not make us weak to talk about our feelings and to reach out for help. We could use more people like him in this world, as his quiet demeanor means he listens and sometimes that is all someone needs, someone to listen.
We both know how blessed we are every minute of every day, and that some people aren’t so fortunate for a variety of reasons, including possibly not having the loving support of friends and family. It is important to both my son and I to give back and to use our experiences to bring people together, to give them strength to speak their truth.
I am proud to stand beside my son, sharing our story and speaking without shame.
May we all have the courage to open our eyes and our hearts a little wider. Not this week. Not today. But everyday.
Jodee Prouse and her son Ryan are advocates to help eliminate the shame and stigma surrounding mental illness and addiction. Jodee is the author of the powerful memoir, The Sun is Gone: A Sister Lost in Secrets, Shame and Addiction and How I Broke Free. To contact them for a speaking engagement from a loving family perspective on mental health, addiction, childhood trauma and other topics email- [email protected]
‘Harm Reduction’ is killing B.C.’s addicts. There’s got to be a better way
From the Frontier Centre for Public Policy
B.C. recently decriminalized the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs. The resulting explosion of addicts using drugs in public spaces, including parks and playgrounds, recently led the province’s NDP government to attempt to backtrack on this policy
Fuelled by the deadly manufactured opioid fentanyl, Canada’s national drug overdose rate stood at 19.3 people per 100,000 in 2022, a shockingly high number when compared to the European Union’s rate of just 1.8. But national statistics hide considerable geographic variation. British Columbia and Alberta together account for only a quarter of Canada’s population yet nearly half of all opioid deaths. B.C.’s 2022 death rate of 45.2/100,000 is more than double the national average, with Alberta close behind at 33.3/100,00.
In response to the drug crisis, Canada’s two western-most provinces have taken markedly divergent approaches, and in doing so have created a natural experiment with national implications.
B.C. has emphasized harm reduction, which seeks to eliminate the damaging effects of illicit drugs without actually removing them from the equation. The strategy focuses on creating access to clean drugs and includes such measures as “safe” injection sites, needle exchange programs, crack-pipe giveaways and even drug-dispensing vending machines. The approach goes so far as to distribute drugs like heroin and cocaine free of charge in the hope addicts will no longer be tempted by potentially tainted street drugs and may eventually seek help.
But safe-supply policies create many unexpected consequences. A National Post investigation found, for example, that government-supplied hydromorphone pills handed out to addicts in Vancouver are often re-sold on the street to other addicts. The sellers then use the money to purchase a street drug that provides a better high — namely, fentanyl.
Doubling down on safe supply, B.C. recently decriminalized the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs. The resulting explosion of addicts using drugs in public spaces, including parks and playgrounds, recently led the province’s NDP government to attempt to backtrack on this policy — though for now that effort has been stymied by the courts.
According to Vancouver city councillor Brian Montague, “The stats tell us that harm reduction isn’t working.” In an interview, he calls decriminalization “a disaster” and proposes a policy shift that recognizes the connection between mental illness and addiction. The province, he says, needs “massive numbers of beds in treatment facilities that deal with both addictions and long-term mental health problems (plus) access to free counselling and housing.”
In fact, Montague’s wish is coming true — one province east, in Alberta. Since the United Conservative Party was elected in 2019, Alberta has been transforming its drug addiction policy away from harm reduction and towards publicly-funded treatment and recovery efforts.
Instead of offering safe-injection sites and free drugs, Alberta is building a network of 10 therapeutic communities across the province where patients can stay for up to a year, receiving therapy and medical treatment and developing skills that will enable them to build a life outside the drug culture. All for free. The province’s first two new recovery centres opened last year in Lethbridge and Red Deer. There are currently over 29,000 addiction treatment spaces in the province.
This treatment-based strategy is in large part the work of Marshall Smith, current chief of staff to Alberta’s premier and a former addict himself, whose life story is a testament to the importance of treatment and recovery.
The sharply contrasting policies of B.C. and Alberta allow a comparison of what works and what doesn’t. A first, tentative report card on this natural experiment was produced last year in a study from Stanford University’s network on addiction policy (SNAP). Noting “a lack of policy innovation in B.C.,” where harm reduction has become the dominant policy approach, the report argues that in fact “Alberta is currently experiencing a reduction in key addiction-related harms.” But it concludes that “Canada overall, and B.C. in particular, is not yet showing the progress that the public and those impacted by drug addiction deserve.”
The report is admittedly an early analysis of these two contrasting approaches. Most of Alberta’s recovery homes are still under construction, and B.C.’s decriminalization policy is only a year old. And since the report was published, opioid death rates have inched higher in both provinces.
Still, the early returns do seem to favour Alberta’s approach. That should be regarded as good news. Society certainly has an obligation to try to help drug users. But that duty must involve more than offering addicts free drugs. Addicted people need treatment so they can kick their potentially deadly habit and go on to live healthy, meaningful lives. Dignity comes from a life of purpose and self-control, not a government-funded fix.
Susan Martinuk is a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and author of the 2021 book Patients at Risk: Exposing Canada’s Health Care Crisis. A longer version of this article recently appeared at C2CJournal.ca.
$1,000,000 boost from province for upgrades at Red Deer’s Centre for Social Impact
BIG BROTHERS BIG SISTERS OF RED DEER RECEIVES $1,000,000 CFEP GRANT IN SUPPORT OF THE CENTRE FOR SOCIAL IMPACT
Youth HQ is proud to announce that Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Red Deer and District has been awarded $1,000,000 through the government of Alberta Community Facility Enhancement Program (CFEP) for the purpose of facility upgrades to the Centre for Social Impact.
The Centre for Social Impact (CSI) is an inspiring place where charities and non-profits can
collaborate; a place centrally located where families can readily access a variety of supports and
services; and a place where organizations can share resources and minimize operating costs.
“We are grateful for the support from CFEP, which enables us to address facility enhancements
and upgrades in support of the charities and non-profits that share this place where community
connects.” States Rob Lewis, Executive Director, YouthHQ.
“Investments into non-profits in our communities, like Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Red Deer
not only support new activities and programming but uplift youth and help build stronger
communities. Alberta’s government is proud to provide this million dollar grant to Red Deer Big
Brothers and Big Sisters, as they provide essential supports and services for the youth of Red
Deer and surrounding area.”
Tanya Fir, Minister of Arts, Culture and Status of Women
“The CFEP grant awarded to Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Red Deer and District is very
exciting news for Red Deer and surrounding communities. This substantial investment will
directly benefit our community by supporting essential youth programs, providing lasting
benefits for our youth in the years to come. I was happy to write a letter of support, as I am
continually inspired by the work Youth HQ does in our community. This grant will undoubtedly
enhance their ability to make a positive impact.”
MLA for Red Deer-North and Minister of Health, Adriana LaGrange
For more information on the Centre for Social Impact please visit www.youthhq.ca
About Big Brothers Big Sisters of Red Deer and District
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Red Deer and District enables life-changing mentoring relationships
to ignite the power of young people. Providing life changing mentoring experiences since 1976,
Big Brothers Big Sisters has been matching children and youth with adult role models who help
them achieve their biggest possible futures. We believe we are #BiggerTogether, and currently
work with over 220 young people to ignite their potential.
About Youth HQ
Youth HQ empowers youth by fostering a community of support. Our network seeks to instill
young people with confidence in their unique identities and abilities, providing them with skills
for life through knowledge, healthy relationships, and quality experiences while providing safe
environments to learn and grow. Youth HQ coordinates programming for Big Brothers Big
Sisters of Red Deer & District and Boys & Girls Club of Red Deer & District, offering numerous
programs and services that support children, youth and families.
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