Kendra Fisher spent the first decade after her mental-illness diagnosis and recovery making sure that hardly anybody knew about it.
That has since changed dramatically with her public speaking and advocacy work. But the star ice-hockey goalie, who succumbed to mental-health ailments just as she was about to make Team Canada, initially resisted. “I spent 10 years making sure not a single person knew I was living with this. I could count on my hands how many people knew,” she said.
And that can add to the difficulty in seeking help and allowing others to provide assistance. For Ms. Fisher, one major turning point changed her thinking.
“In 2010, I was sitting in the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association head office, when somebody walked in with Daron Richardson’s memorial,” honouring the talented teen player who had committed suicide. “I remember sitting there, holding that memorial in my hand, thinking ‘I’m part of the problem. I’m part of the reason that people don’t know that there’s hope,’ ” Ms. Fisher said.
By this, Ms. Fisher, now a prominent speaker on mental health and founder of the advocacy group Mentallyfit, means the silence that typically surrounds mental health. It is being discussed more now, in workplaces and society at large. Ms. Fisher appeared at a seminar at The Globe and Mail’s Solving Workplace Challenges event, in conjunction with the Employee Recommended Workplace Awards, recognizing achievements in workplace and employee health.
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The stigma associated with mental health is weakening. But what Ms. Fisher says needs fixing now is the silence surrounding practical help. It can take months for someone suffering illness to get help. Support in the workplace and in the community could help to bridge that gap.
“Support can be peer support. Support can be learning the other resources and tools available to us to help manage mental health better,” she said. “Although we’ve touched on these conversations through our stigma campaigns, we haven’t necessarily gone into an action phase of making these resources available to people.”
This can include treating both mental and physical health holistically. “I think they’re one and the same. I think we need to stop distinguishing them at all,” Ms. Fisher argued.
For Ms. Fisher, in order to make her recovery stick, “I started to realize that it was never going to be enough for me to just take a pill. I was going to have to work harder at managing the symptoms of my mental illness, and that took learning to cope with anxiety and panic attacks. That took learning to counter the feelings of depression.
“And a lot of the tools that we could use are built into very traditional practices, whether it’s physical health, whether it’s yoga and mindfulness, or whether it’s paying attention to our nutrition,” she said.
Of course, no two people experience illness and recovery exactly the same way. And that’s where the community can help, especially within the workplace, by providing a truer feeling of safety and stop-gap resources to enable those hit with illness to feel secure enough to reach out for help.
“Maybe we can start creating more of a community response. And through that, hopefully we can kill that silence and isolation that comes with mental illness,” Ms. Fisher said. “How I live in recovery with anxiety and depression might be completely different than how the next person finds support and finds relief.
“So I think there’s a failure in trying to fit everybody into the same program. And unfortunately, I feel that’s exactly what corporations have done,” she said.
Creating a feeling of safety can even be just a change in attitude among management and staff. It could be simply allowing an employee to say, “I’m having a really rough time, I’m just going to excuse myself and go for a 15-minute walk and come back. No questions asked. No ‘where were you?’ No fear of repercussion,” Ms. Fisher said. “These little steps can be taken and can really change somebody’s work experience.”
If the only thing that those suffering from mental illness are doing at work is forcing themselves to show up and check the boxes, “their productivity is not going to be what it could be. Having lived with mental illness for as long as I have, I assure you that there are days where my disability feels as all encompassing and life changing as a physical illness,” she said.
“We like to say that we’re doing a lot, and we like to say that we’re researching and finding the best options, and we’re investing in these multi-million-dollar platforms that are there to support mental health in the workplace. But let’s just deal with each other as people.”