A Tale of Two Meetings

As I write this, I’m onboard my train returning home. I’m tired – sleeping with poor pillows does that – but also energized. I’m energized because my trip to Ottawa has been eye-opening.

Image by Alexas_Fotos

First there was the Infoway Health Canada reception last night. The opportunity to meet and engage with MPs, bureaucrats and healthcare executives and explore the virtues of Big White Wall was a delight.

By way of background, Big White Wall is an online mental health community. It offers round the clock monitoring, artistic expression, in depth study of some mental health conditions, coping tools and a chat-like feature. It isn’t yet available here in Canada, but there’s been a near year-long pilot project in parts of Ontario to assess its effectiveness.  I was fortunate to be involved in this pilot as a patient.

At the reception, I was joined by Harriet, from OTN Telemedicine, the agency that brought Big White Wall to Ontario as a pilot, and Jane, another user of the Big White Wall.

Together we were able to explain how the built-in anonymity encouraged openness, allowed you to set aside shame and expose yourself in ways you wouldn’t in face to face conversation. We all know how much shame limits our conversation about our mental health. Removing that barrier creates a climate for improved healing, particularly in an environment where AI logarithms and human monitoring both actively strive to keep the conversation, and you, safe.

We were able to share how the “talkabout” function created engagement, user to user engagement and user to professional mental health worker engagement. I explored how this engagement offered more than a static site in realizing the truth that you’re not alone in your suffering. Through user to user interaction, you can see firsthand that recovery is possible, that there’s a light at the end of the darkness. For many, this can provide a sense of hope that may once have been lost.

We discussed the truth that Canada is a vast country filled with remote communities and that this imposes strains on our mental health resources. But the larger strain is on those who must wait for support. Consider how beneficial a tool like Big White Wall could be to our nation. With only an internet connection, someone can logon to an online community and receive mental health support 24/7/365, support not only from fellow users, but from trained mental health professionals.

There was also discussion on the “behind the scenes” elements of Big White Wall, the metrics that the pilot generated. These metrics go a long way to determining whether or not the tool will be scaled up to become a part of the mental health landscape. The good news is that the numbers are very positive so I’m hopeful that wide-scale implementation will take place.

My second meeting was also a delight. I met, for the first time, a true mental health pioneer, Jean-Francois Claude, known on Twitter as @DysthymicDad. In addition to his activity on Twitter, Jean-Francois also hosts themensden.ca, The Men’s Depression Education Network, and is the founder of Men’s Mental Health Awareness Day.

In addition to sharing his story with me, Jean-Francois was gracious in extending his thanks for my involvement in this year’s Men’s Mental Health Awareness Day campaign. The fact of the matter is, it was only because of Jean-Francois’ graciousness that I was able to participate. Let me explain.

I first learned of Men’s Mental Health Awareness Day in 2016 when I was tagged in a photo. Alongside the tag was a challenge, for me to approach the City of Oshawa and have them proclaim Men’s Mental Health Awareness Day.

I accepted the challenge – and then I froze. Thoughts of unworthiness plagued me and I procrastinated.

In time, I overcame my thoughts and obtained the requested proclamation. But before I did this, I reached out to Jean-Francois and explained what had happened. To my surprise, he thanked me. More than anything, it was this graciousness, this understanding, that propelled me to act this year.

Jean-Francois shared with me how he came to become a mental health advocate. He explained how The Men’s D.E.N. came about, how he was able to parley his work-experience and grow the idea. He shared.

Jean-Francois, thank-you for your efforts in promoting men’s mental health awareness. Thank-you also for showing me that even a regular guy, someone who struggles with his sense of worthiness, can be an advocate.

Two very different meetings, but meetings that I was so very lucky to be a part of. In one, I was clearly advocating for the adoption of a tool that would benefit many. In the other, I learned that it’s okay to be an advocate while struggling, that this might even make the advocacy more poignant, more honest.

Perhaps I am an advocate after all.