by Stephen Adler
Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk Day 2015 was January 28. For the last couple of years, Bell has joined forces with notable Canadians encouraging a discussion about mental health. Indeed, we need to talk about how mental illness impacts us all, given that statistics show one in five of us will suffer from mental illness and, fearing judgment and rejection, two-thirds of those will struggle in silence.
I cannot talk about what it is like to have a mental illness or the ensuing fears of judgment or rejection, but I can talk about what it is like to have loved someone who battled daily with mental illness. For many years my wife, Janna, suffered from a complex mental illness. But she never let her illness stop her. Janna was a speech and language pathologist who worked with stroke and head trauma patients as well as in a practice specializing in treating children with complex diagnoses. She was an amazing therapist who, at the same time, and – to all but her closest confidantes – silently looked for a way to stabilize her illness. Unfortunately, for Janna, the usual treatments and therapies were unsuccessful. This led her to attempt experimental therapies in hope of finding a treatment that would allow her to return to a semblance of normal life. Unfortunately, each of these attempts also failed, only exacerbating her depressive symptoms. Janna said repeatedly that mental health is an invisible illness, which makes it impossible for others to understand the pain it inflicts. In fact, it was only after she began to suffer from debilitating vertigo, which struck suddenly and without a discernible underlying medical cause, that people saw her as ill – because she then required the use of a cane.
Coupled with vertigo, her mental illness robbed Janna of her ability to work, socialize and live. It robbed her of her ability to make a difference in her patients’ lives and to do what she loved and what sustained her professional satisfaction and personal pride. But her illness robbed me of something even greater: it took my Janna from me. November 18 began much as any other day, but it ended like no other. The illness that stole Janna’s life robbed us both of our future together.
It will not, however, prevent my trying to help others. Janna would want me to continue to do just that. Bell has done a great service encouraging a national discussion, but a single day is not sufficient. Helping to put an end to the stigma for those suffering from mental and related illnesses is not a one-day, annual activity.
In my personal and professional life, I have worked with community social service agencies to assist their efforts in tackling mental health challenges. Much of my work revolves around assisting social service agencies, community members, and organizations to navigate the maze of provincial programs, including those in mental health. On a volunteer basis, I have served on the Board of the Chai-Tikvah / Life and Hope Foundation for eight years. As a community-based organization supported by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, Chai-Tikvah is a leading healthcare provider recognized for its excellence in delivering accessible, quality mental healthcare and support. Among their services are a group home that provides 24-hour support, a triplex that allows clients to live semi-independently, and various programs for those coping with mental health issues. This is just one example of the many wonderful agencies supported by Jewish Federations in communities across Canada. Without question, ours is a community that cares for the most vulnerable among us – including those Jewish families affected by mental illness.
You can find your own way to get involved but, at the very least, I hope you will not shy away from talking about mental illness and the impact that it has on all of us every day. Offer to help if you can and – please – get help if you need it. Contact your family doctor, local social service agency or local mental health agency. You are not alone.
Janna Adler, z’l, died much too soon on November 18th, 2014, leaving a void in the lives of all who knew and loved her. While mental illness took away her future, it negated neither Janna’s extraordinary gifts nor their positive effect on the lives of countless clients, friends, and loving family – impact achieved over a lifetime of battling a crippling, invisible illness, all while continuing to offer remarkable service to others.
I miss Janna. And I remain incredibly proud of her.
Originally from Hamilton, Stephen Adler is Associate Director, Ontario Government Relations, at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.