Let's Talk campaign chair turns tragedy into message of hope
Published Tuesday, February 7, 2012 7:14AM EST
No one would blame Mary Deacon if she chose to shy away from mental health issues, having lost two brothers to suicide and enduring her own battle with depression.
But Deacon has made mental health advocacy a big part of her life's work, which has led her to her latest role, as chair of Bell's Mental Health Initiative to raise awareness about mental health issues.
Deacon says advocating for patients with mental illness is a natural fit for her, given her personal experiences.
"And (advocacy) definitely has helped me because my life was changed by it, and so being identified with it is really only natural. Because I can't hide it, it's been such a big part of my life."
Deacon spent 25 years as a fundraiser in the not-for-profit sector, working at organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and the MS Society.
It was while she was working at the WWF that her brother David -- a University of Toronto medical student -- took his own life. He was 25.
"It was devastating to my family for so many reasons on so many levels," she says. "First of all, we knew nothing about depression. I don't know that the word depression had ever crossed our minds, or the word mental illness had ever crossed our lips. It was just completely foreign to us as a family. We had no comprehension of what it was, anything about it."
The family learned that David had suffered in silence for years, and kept his depression hidden from everyone because of shame, and over fears that his illness would derail his career as a doctor.
Not long after David's death, Deacon learned something else: she, too, suffers from depression.
She says she was "reeling and suffering" following David's death, a sadness made even worse by raging hormones because she had given birth just weeks before.
At first she tried to deny that she was depressed, but finally opted to try both medication and therapy.
"I realized once I started to feel better, that I must have been depressed my whole life," she says.
She remembers a moment, more than a year after David died, when the sight of a blue sky made her happy.
"I had all of the classic symptoms of depression, I had all of them, but it was normal. That was my life," she says. "I thought everybody was like that. I thought for everybody getting up in the morning was really hard. I thought for everybody going out and playing a game of tennis, or working or talking to people or interacting with people or sleeping (were really hard). I thought everybody was like that, they just did a better job of coping with it, they were tougher than me."
Years later, in 1999, Deacon noticed a job opportunity that she felt "uniquely qualified" for: a fundraiser at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
She felt that because she had "such a deep, personal connection to the issue," she could devote her time to helping others get the help they needed.
In 2003, her brother Ted took his own life at the age of 39. Ted had struggled with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) from when he was a young boy, but at the time there were no treatments for the condition.
As a result of Ted's death, Mary says, "my passion was redoubled for the issue of mental health."
She jumped into new initiatives at CAMH, including programs that recruited community leaders to help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.
It was through those programs that she met George Cope. When Cope took over as president and CEO of BCE and Bell Canada, he invited her to look at the company's philanthropic initiatives and devise a plan for how it could have a greater impact in the community.
After looking at Bell's programs, as well as those of other companies, she quickly realized that Bell could fill a void by focusing on mental health issues.
"It's like this with mental health everywhere and all the time," she says. "The more you talk about it, the more people say ‘Wow, you know what? Not only is that important but here's my personal story.'"
And so the Let's Talk initiative was born, aiming to get Canadians talking in an attempt to de-stigmatize mental illness.
Deacon highlights the three "As" that are key to the dialogue about mental illness: awareness, acceptance and action.
From there, she says, she hopes the initiative leads to greater awareness and acceptance, less stigma, and more funding for mental health.
"With mental illness, stigma is the single biggest reason people cite as the reason they don't get help," Deacon says.
"By our own behaviours and attitudes, we can be the solution. So conquering stigma is within each of our ability to do."
Join the conversation: On Wednesday, Feb. 8 CTVNews.ca will host a Bell Let's Talk live chat and livestream from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET featuring special guests and experts appearing on CTV News Channel, BNN, and Canada AM.