A new state of mind

Helping those with mental illness requires changing the way we all think

By Starr Cunningham

From the newsroom to the Nova Scotia Hospital: it might sound like a newspaper headline, but it’s actually the title of a presentation I’ve been delivering to organizations across the province for the last two years. After making the move from co-host and producer of the CTV News at 5 for more than a decade, the number one question I still get asked is, “Why did you leave TV?” 

My most popular answer is, “It had absolutely nothing to do with the charming Bruce Frisko!” My most truthful answer is, “It had everything to do with wanting to help change the way people think.”

As the president and CEO of the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia, my main mission is to make a difference in the lives of Nova Scotians by supporting mental-health initiatives in our communities. 

Our team raises both funds and awareness in hopes of ending stigma and creating positive change. Simply put, our Foundation works every day to help ensure Nova Scotians with mental illness are thriving in our communities. It’s a lofty vision, but I believe it is attainable.

So how did my 23 years as a journalist prepare me for this new chapter? It provided me with confidence, contacts, and public profile. But there’s another part of my life that prepared me even more. Being a parent has been, by far, my most empowering experience.

Today my son is 21 and my daughter is 12. They’re fantastic children who make my life better just by being in it. Like most parents, I have a strong desire to protect them, guide them and see them succeed. So when all that was challenged nine years ago I wasn’t quite sure what to do.

When my son was in Grade 6 he started to receive threats from other kids. They told him they were going to hurt him when he made the move from elementary to junior high. I tried to shrug it off as threatening talk that would never amount to much. I was wrong.

The bullies made life miserable for him. His first few months of junior high were practically unbearable. He stopped wanting to go to school and changed from being a child who enjoyed socializing to being a child who would rather just stay in his room. He became angry, frustrated, and anxious.

The full family effects of his situation took hold almost immediately. Our home went from being a place of comfort to a place of upheaval. Yes, my son was the one being bullied, but every single one of us suffered the consequences.

I remember not being able to sleep through the night, feeling helpless and battling a 24-hour fog. I tried to solve the problems on my own. We arranged an out-of-area school transfer. We encouraged new friendships. We tried to pretend we were all OK. 

It didn’t work.

Here I was, the person on television interviewing the experts, reporting on how to identify the signs of bullying and telling people not to be scared to ask for help. Yet I was living in my own personal world of denial. I’m not sure exactly what it was that finally made me realize I couldn’t fix the situation on my own, but I vividly recall what I did.

I finally summoned the courage to walk upstairs to my HR department at CTV. I asked my co-worker and friend for the phone number to our EFAP (Employee and Family Assistance Program) provider. She discreetly wrote it down for me and I quickly made my way to a private phone. 

I remember holding my breath while I dialed the number, scared someone would discover what I was doing. I was embarrassed and ashamed that I didn’t have the skills to take care of this problem on my own. Now, almost 10 years later, the only thing I’m embarrassed and ashamed about is how long it took me to leave my desk in the newsroom and walk up those stairs.

Within a few days of making the call I received professional counseling. Within a few minutes of making the call I received the ability to take a deep breath again. It was like a giant weight had been lifted off my chest. I had a problem, I asked for help, and thankfully, I found it.

The counseling helped our family stop dwelling on the past. It taught us important coping skills and helped us to focus on our future. It opened our lines of communication and allowed us to realize we weren’t the only family struggling to get through a difficult experience. We continue to use these skills every day.

When people ask me what they can do to help make a difference for others living with mental illness or mental health concerns, my answer now is simple: talk about it. 

Don’t try to hide it or pretend it doesn’t exist. Whether it’s diagnosed depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, escalated stress, panic attacks, an inability to sleep, or constant irritability and worry, talk about it. 

The statistics tell us one in five Nova Scotians will experience a mental-health concern or addiction this year. Not in their lifetime, but this year. When you take time to consider those numbers it’s pretty evident we all know and love someone who is affected. Whether it’s a close family member, a co-worker, a person at your child’s school, a sports coach, a bus driver, a TV journalist, or a president and CEO. No one is immune and everyone’s struggles are unique.

Our motto here at the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia is “changing the way people think.” I hope this new column will allow me to work at doing just that. 

Thank you to Our Children magazine and editor, Suzanne Rent, for this amazing opportunity. I’m very much looking forward to using my transition from the newsroom to my office at the Nova Scotia Hospital as a way to get people talking about mental illness and mental health concerns. 

There’s simply no denying these critical conversations need to move from our hospitals and doctor’s offices to our schools, recreation centres, workplaces, and homes. 

It will work.   

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