Exciting News in Mental Health

Travis James’ #StacheTheStigma Campaign Raising Funds and Awareness for Thumbs Up Foundation

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One year ago today, Travis James made a suicide attempt due to overwhelming stresses, but thankfully survived. In the past year, he has been involved with Thumbs Up Foundation and become a strong advocate for mental health and addressing the stigma that surrounds it.

In August 2020, he began as a Harmonized Health Client. He continues to work with Thumbs Up through his #StacheTheStigma fundraiser that he initiated in support of Thumbs Up and to help raise awareness for mental health and addiction. He will be growing out his moustache and selling #StacheTheStigma T-shirts until May 24.

“Thumbs Up Foundation has been an amazing support system for me and to help me get my life back on track”

Travis shares that a big part of his recovery process is sharing his story to raise awareness and hopefully inspire people to take their mental health seriously. When we asked Travis if he might be interested in participating in a video interview, he was courageous and gracious enough to agree. His story has also been shared by Airdrie Today.

If you would like to make a donation in honour of Travis’ 1-year anniversary since his suicide attempt, please click the button below.

A big thank you to Stephen & Izzy for creating the video, as well as Airdrie Today for sharing this story.

Airdrie Today: Bullfighter’s #StacheTheStigma raising funds, awareness for Thumbs Up Foundation

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Yesterday, Airdrie Today released a story about Travis James who has been working with Thumbs Up Foundation as both a Harmonized Health Client and a mental health advocate. He began his #StacheTheStigma fundraising campaign to raise funds for Thumbs Up and to encourage conversation around mental health. Thank you to Airdrie Today for sharing this important story, which is posted below. If you would like to learn more about Travis’ journey, watch his interview with Kim Titus here.

April 24, 2021 will be the 1-year anniversary of Travis’ suicide attempt. Help him meet his fundraising goal by donating below!

Airdrie Today: Bullfighter’s #StacheTheStigma raising funds, awareness for Thumbs Up Foundation

A year after a failed suicide attempt, Edson bullfighter Travis James has found a new lease on life, with help from an Airdrie-based non-profit organization.

A year after a failed suicide attempt, bullfighter Travis James has found a new lease on life, with help from an Airdrie-based non-profit organization.

On April 24, 2020, James attempted to take his own life. The Edson, Alta. resident said he was in a bad place mentally, at a time when the onset of public health restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic had impacted his livelihood as a bullfighter.

“There were no rodeos and that’s how I make a large portion of my income,” he said. “It got to be too much.”

Fortunately, James is still around, and since that fateful day, he’s been able to receive help from the Thumbs Up Foundation – a non-profit organization in Airdrie that aims to improve access to mental health-care and resources and raise awareness of suicide prevention.

The Thumbs Up Foundation was formed by married couple Kim and Kim Titus in 2015 after their son Braden passed away from suicide. After a family member of James told the Tituses about his struggles, the Airdrie organization got in touch with the bullfighter and set him up with their mental health resources and network.

Kim Titus, the charity’s co-chair, said she is immensely proud of how far James has come in the last year, with regard to his mental health progress.

“I can’t even express the tremendous amount of respect and regard I have for Travis,” she said. “He’s a bullfighter, for God’s sake. He lives in that world and his courage to come and talk about his experience, to face it head-on and be a spokesperson and ombudsman for the mental health movement and the message he has – I just hold him in extraordinarily high regard.”

According to James, since being connected with Thumbs Up Foundation, he has utilized their counselling services and undergone a cognitive brain analysis.

As a way of saying thank you to the charity for its support, he kicked off #StacheTheStigma last summer – a fundraising campaign that aims to raise money for the Thumbs Up Foundation and strike up a conversation about mental health. Until May 24, James said he is growing out his moustache and selling T-shirts emblazoned with #StacheTheStigma on them, with the proceeds supporting the Thumbs Up Foundation.

He said he has been growing out his moustache since August 2020 – more than 260 days – as part of the campaign, and his initial goal was to raise $13,000. He added he had raised approximately $4,000 as of April 15.

“I was hoping to reach $13,000 by the May long weekend but it’s hard right now to fundraise because we keep getting locked down,” he said.” It’s hard to reach out and ask people to donate when lots of people are losing their jobs, but any goal is better than nothing.”

James is encouraging people to donate to the foundation at

Titus said initiatives and campaigns like #StacheTheStigma are what it is going to take to help end the stigma associated with mental illness. She said having someone like James, who is associated with the typically-macho world of bullfighting, be upfront about his mental health struggles is a big step forward.

“In my world, it’s first and foremost an awareness campaign,” she said.

“You never know – and he may never know – who he’s impacted, whose mind he changes and who hears his message who needs to hear his message. That’s first and foremost the biggest thing. We’re grateful for our relationship with Travis and everything he’s doing – he’s a great ambassador for mental health.”

With the finish line for #StacheTheStigma just a month away, James said he intends to continue raising funds and support for Thumbs Up Foundation, even after the May 24 deadline has passed.

As for the moustache, he added he’s taken to his new facial hair and may decide not to part with it quite yet.

“I might just shave my head instead because I’m kind of liking the moustache,” he said.

Scott Strasser

About the Author: Scott Strasser

Scott Strasser, acting editor

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Strike Group, TC Energy, and OTS Raise $16,200 for Thumbs Up Foundation

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Yesterday morning, Strike Group, TC Energy, and OTS presented Thumbs Up Foundation with a cheque from their fundraising efforts. Strike Group and OTS raised $8,100 with donations from them and through their 50/50 fundraiser. TC Energy as one of their partners matched the funds for the grand total of $16,200.

A huge thank you to Strike Group, TC, and OTS! Thumbs Up is incredibly grateful for these three groups for the support, the donations, and raising awareness.

Purchase a Toque To Support the Thumbs Up Foundation

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Sorso Lounge Espresso & Wine Bar will be donating $5.00 to Thumbs Up Foundation with every purchase of these awesome AIRDRIE toques! “We really appreciate you thinking of us! Sorso is an important resource for Thumbs Up. We couldn’t even tell you the # of meetings – of ALL descriptions – we’ve had / held there. Although it’s been great for all of them – the ones we particularly appreciate are the ones with the people themselves who are suffering because of mental health or addiction challenges. Being able to meet at a place like yours has proven to be a powerful tool in helping bring these discussions out into the light and every day world and “normalize” the conversations. We appreciate it more than words can do justice.”

Mental Health Matters: Message from MLA Angela Pitt

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Airdrie-East MLA Angela Pitt has sent out a message to outline several groups committed to providing mental health support for Albertans, including the Thumbs Up Foundation. She also overviews the platforms that the Alberta government has ran to address mental health and addiction issues.

“Alberta’s government believes in helping those struggling with addiction treatment and mental health concerns with compassion, and we recognize that partnering with local advocacy groups and treatment centres is often the best way to deliver the support that Albertans need.”

“The Thumbs Up Foundation has a huge impact on our community, with nine volunteer Board Members and a group of eighteen individuals working tirelessly on the Harmonized Health project to provide community support networks and virtual programs.
Alberta’s government will continue supporting evidence-based funding programs, and ensuring that resources are there for those struggling with addiction and mental health.”

The full message can be found here.

Great West Newspaper: Struggling For Hope – Part 8

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The Thumbs Up Foundation is honoured to support Great West Newspaper’s “Struggling For Hope” 8-part series. Journalist Jennifer Henderson investigates the relationship between the mental health of Albertans and our economy.

Thanks to the network of participating papers in the Thumbs Up sponsored features:

A HUGE thank you to all involved!!

Part 8 – ‘I couldn’t reach him any more’: Substance use rises with recession, pandemic

This is the eighth part of Struggling for Hope, a special feature series examining the intersections between economic instability and mental health needs. Read our introduction to the series here.

“I miss the person he was when we first met. I miss my friend.”

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Marcel Belland, top left, is seen in this family photo with Jillian Bourgeois and their two sons, Brody and Benjamin. Marcel died by suicide in March after years of battling alcoholism. JILLIAN BOURGEOIS/Photo

Marcel Belland was like two different people: he was an outgoing, charming, friendly, fun-loving, kind and gentle man for most of his life. But after his anxiety, depression and addiction to alcohol escalated, he became unhappy, introverted, isolated and hard to reach.

The pain of living became too much to bear and in March 2020 he took his own life.

Jillian Bourgeois, Belland’s widow, said she knew deep down he didn’t want to be so sick and unwell, but Belland struggled to get the help he needed for his addiction and mental health.

“There is no way the man that I married didn’t want to get help,” Bourgeois said.

Bourgeois and Belland met when they were just 18 years old and fell in love. The couple married in 2004 and Belland was healthy and happy until 2013.

Bourgeois first started to see signs of anxiety and depression from her husband after her two sons, Benjamin, 11, and Brody, 9, were born.

Belland struggled to cope with the stress of having two kids and the financial burden on the family after Bourgeois took two maternity leaves back-to-back.

“I started noticing changes that were loss of friendships and increased stress on our marriage,” Bourgeois said.

The changes were small and gradual. Belland had always been a heavy drinker during his life, but Bourgeois didn’t think too much of it for most of their time together. Bourgeois had originally chalked it up to the trades culture he was in and coming from a family that drank more regularly than her own. His drinking was also normalized by a group of friends who drank as much as he did.

Now, looking back, she sees 2011 as the beginning of his struggles.

“I noticed changes in his personality, because he was always a very fun-loving, easygoing guy, kind and gentle, and his personality was changing, where he was more … more introverted, harder to reach, always being alone,” Bourgeois said.

“It’s very gradual, and subtle … until eventually (it reached) the point that it was a change that you couldn’t go back from. I couldn’t reach him any more.”

Belland started becoming unhappy in his job, and in 2015 switched from being a heavy duty mechanic to working on the sales side of his company, but he found the transition difficult.

Alberta’s economy had recently crashed and making a sale was hard. Belland went from a job he was experienced in to becoming a rookie who was struggling to make money.

“It was just a struggle from the get-go,” Bourgeois said.

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Marcel Belland and his two sons, Brody and Benjamin. JILLIAN BOURGEOIS/Photo

Belland was also the kind of person who worked well with a structured schedule – having to be at work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. – and suddenly his schedule had loosened up and his job was more flexible. He was driving around trying to build relationships and make sales, but Bourgeois said he would start to come home at lunch and have a beer and nobody would know.

The problem was made worse by the wine-and-dine culture of sales, and Belland would regularly take his clients out to dinner and drinks, feeding his growing addiction.

“It’s very much the culture of those jobs and that doesn’t help for somebody who’s susceptible to alcoholism,” Bourgeois said.

His difficulty making sales in a highly competitive field hit his self-esteem, Bourgeois added.

“It also contributed to the depression – just not feeling like you’re good enough.”

Bourgeois worked as an appraiser at the time, which was a stressful job as well. The combination of family and work stress drove Belland deeper into his depression and he became more reliant on alcohol.

“I think that it was the combination of (it all) that tipped the scales and he reached a point of no return,” Bourgeois said, adding he was also treating some trauma through his drinking.

By 2016, Belland was no longer working and was spending his days at home drinking. By 2017, his alcoholism had taken over.

“It was textbook – the downward spiral of how it takes over your life and that’s when you know that it needs professional help,” Bourgeois said.

The mom struggled to take care of the family financially, while also taking over all of the childcare of their two sons, because Belland was withdrawing and not able to help.

“He was just very angry,” Bourgeois said.

Belland got medication for his depression and anxiety, as well as sleep medication, but that didn’t help the situation. The father didn’t take the meds properly and would take an extra sleeping pill at 4 a.m. if he couldn’t sleep – then would end up sleeping all day.

Eventually, he started living his life at night while the rest of the family was living during the day, and would spend much of his time outside smoking, marking a big increase in his nicotine consumption. His and Bourgeois’ daytime interactions became increasingly more volatile, exploding into fights where objects got thrown and items got broken.

“We had to leave, because it wasn’t safe any more for me and my boys. It just was not healthy for the boys. He was unpredictable and fights were getting escalating to the point that it just wasn’t safe any more,” Bourgeois said.

The mom had to leave her husband with no job and no way to support himself, but she couldn’t stay in the house any more.

After 2017, Belland moved in with his mom and went to rehab several times.

“There would be periods of good, like where you can tell that he was good, and then periods where you could just tell that he was drinking again, or not taking the meds at the end,” Bourgeois said.

Eulogy for Marcel Belland

This is not the first time I (we) have had to grieve the loss of Marcel. We really lost him about 4-5 years ago when the depression, anxiety, and addiction took over his body and all of our lives. It began to define him. He was overcome by a series of problems that had to be dealt with. You couldn’t see Marcel anymore – just the problems caused by the illness.

I had to make some really hard decisions for me and the boys at that time. We had to sell our house and many of our material possessions, I changed career paths, the boys changed schools, and we had to let go of a dream of a certain type of family and future.

Now, today, we are gathered here together grieving the death of Marcel.

When someone chooses to die by suicide it leaves the rest of us asking “Why”? “How could you want to do this?”.

So, in my early morning – can’t sleep – Google searches for the answers to life’s hardest questions, I came across an analogy that gave me a sense of peace and I would like to share it with you.

“People who choose to die by suicide are afraid of death, but it is the lesser of two evils. Compare it to a burning building in which a person is afraid to jump, but they are also afraid of burning to death.

“Make no mistake about people who leap from burning buildings. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking the view. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames.”

Ultimately, for Marcel, the flames that raged in his mind were worse than the fear of falling to his death.

At this time of grieving Marcel’s death, I can tell you that I feel a sense of hope. It is as though through this tragedy, we will get him back now. Instead of the torment and problems caused by the mental health issues – I can have my memories of the man I fell in love with and married. The loving father of these two beautiful boys and the fun adventures and times that we did have as a young couple and then as a family.

When I shared the news of his passing to my friends and family – the most common response I received was, “You all did not deserve this”.

For me this is the truest response. We did not deserve this. Marcel did not deserve this. Just like any other person or family who is faced with cancer, Alzheimer’s, a heart disease or whatever else does not deserve those fates.

This is our story.

Thank-you sincerely for showing up and being here for us today and holding Marcel and all of us close in your hearts.

Thank-you to my family who has been my pillars of support through everything. You have kept me strong and helped me and the boys through this never failing to be there when we needed you.

Thank-you to all of our old friends who stuck by us through this all. You were not afraid to be there during difficult times. Thank-you to my new friends who agreed to take me on despite difficult times. This would have been unsurmountable without any of you.

This is the eulogy Jillian Bourgeois wrote and read at Marcel’s funeral, shared here with her permission.

Recession increases drinking

Ehsan Latif, economics professor at Thompson Rivers University, studied the link between recessions and drinking and smoking habits of Canadians. Latif said during a recession, people are more likely to increase their binge drinking and smoking habits.

Latif found when unemployment rates increase, binge drinking habits – characterized as consuming more than five drinks in a sitting – also increase across the population. Nicotine consumption increases, too, but only for those who are already smokers.

Latif said the 2015 recession didn’t create new drinkers in society, because most of the population already drinks.

“It’s because of mental stress. They want a way to survive or find some mental relief through drinking,” Latif said.

Smoking can also be a mental relief for those who already have an addiction to nicotine, Latif said.

Another reason people are more likely to drink and smoke is because they lose hope and are less concerned about their health in the future.

“If people become unemployed for a long term of time with no job, then they become so frustrated and … they aren’t concerned about the future outlook – it’s not a rosy outlook, so they don’t care about the future and what will happen to their health,” Latif explained.

Latif found the results were more pronounced in men, but mostly because past recessions across Canada have impacted men more than women, including mass layoffs in the oil and gas industry in Alberta or the manufacturing industry in Ontario. During the COVID-19 pandemic, by contrast, Latif said women are being impacted more than men so he isn’t sure how this current health crisis and economic downturn will impact the smoking and drinking habits of men and women.

The study wasn’t specific to those who were unemployed, but looked at overall population rates of drinking and smoking during a recession. Latif said those who are unemployed may have more time to drink and smoke because of being laid off, but those two habits are expensive, and they will have less money to spend on their habits, so it is unlikely that drives the increase in rates.

In 2017, overall substance use cost Canadians almost $46 billion, led to more than 275,000 hospitalizations and contributed to the loss of nearly 75,000 lives.

Alcohol is the most popularly used psychoactive drug used in Canada aside from caffeine, and drinking alcohol was the top risk factor for poor health in people ages 15 to 49 years in 2010.

Increased drinking can result in a wide range of negative impacts on society, including increased rates of premature death, disability and disease, impaired driving, reduced productivity, a burdened health care system and high financial costs to individuals and society.

In 2002, 4,258 deaths in Canada were related to alcohol abuse, representing 1.9 per cent of all deaths. The economic costs associated with alcohol consumption sit at $14.6 billion and an additional $5.9 billion to lost productivity, $4.2 billion to healthcare and $3.2 billion to criminal justice.

In 2011, alcohol-related disorders were the top cause of psychoactive drug hospitalization in Canada and around 78 per cent of the general population aged 15 and over reported alcohol use.

Other drugs and the economy

While there is a lot of data on alcohol consumption, Latif said the consumption rates of other drugs are hard to study, because most, excluding cannabis, are illegal and tracking the increase or decrease in market is challenging.

Emma Buhr, a 20-year-old Albertan who works at Costco, said her consumption of cannabis increased since the beginning of the pandemic because of the stress of her job and having to delay her education.

“I think I’ve smoked weed every day for the past five months,” Buhr told Great West Newspapers.

Research shows cannabis is one of the most commonly used substances in Canada, with 15.6 per cent of all Canadians reporting having used the drug in the past three months.

“This isn’t a good use of my money, or it’s not a good idea in the long run. But I really can’t see how I’m going to spend my days without it,” Buhr said.

Buhr has been smoking weed since she was 16, but she was always able to step away from it and take breaks for weeks at a time.

“But then ever since the pandemic, the thought of me going two days without smoking weed, it just – it frustrates me and I don’t think that those days will be easy,” Buhr said.

When the pandemic hit, Buhr’s job suddenly became very stressful. The 20-year-old was tasked with ensuring people were social distancing, wearing masks, not bring in their reusable bags and bringing in only two members of their family at a time, all while the public was scared and shoppers were taking out their frustrations on her.

On top of the work stress, Buhr was upset because she had to put her education. As a hands-on learner, she couldn’t do online classes.

“I just felt like at the end of every night after work, it was the only way I could go to sleep and I felt almost as if I earned it, because I worked eight hours, putting my health and safety at risk – like the least I owe myself is to unwind,” Buhr said.

When it comes to opioids, a strong link has been found between recessions and an increase of opioid deaths. Research spanning from 1999 to 2014 found when house prices drop, opioid deaths increased significantly. Other research has found links between opioid use and unemployment. Overall consumption of drugs has increased during times of economic recessions, with many authors suggesting the increased psychological distress from heightened unemployment leads people to lean on drugs to cope.

Lean on old habits

Rolando Hyman, a therapist based out of Fort McMurray who treats addiction, said when times get hard, many people fall back into their old habits to cope with their stress.

“As things become more intense, people tend to fall back into old behaviours,” Hyman said.

People who are in recovery from substance use may be doing OK, but when life starts to get challenging, like losing a job or having financial struggles, they may fall back into their default mode.

“Sometimes it’s not choice, but just by circumstance,” Hyman said.

Hyman said those who may be new to recovery, haven’t developed a good self-care routine and don’t have strong, healthy natural supports in their lives to lean on may be more likely to fall back into their old habits.

Right now, due to the recession and pandemic, Hyman said demand for services has increased and he said he could be treating people every day, all day if possible. At the beginning of the pandemic, the rush for services wasn’t as strong, but now that we are eight months in, people are starting to need new coping mechanisms and support.

In Fort McMurray, Hyman said there is also a high demand for services when the economy is booming.

“When things are great, there is more money,” he explained, noting the population in the area may favour drugs that quickly leave the system, like cocaine, so they can go back to work and pass a drug test.

Society has also normalized excessive alcohol and drug use, Hyman said, making unhealthy habits part of regular socialization. The need for people to belong and the fear of missing out may drive people to use more substances than they are comfortable with just to fit in.

When people do reach a harmful and unhealthy level of substance consumption, it can be hard for them to reach out and get help.

“There is a certain amount of pride that goes with it, and sometimes the hardest step of the process for those who struggle with substances is to step forward and say, ‘I need help,’” Hyman said.

Hard on the family

In 2012, 18.1 per cent of Canadians met the criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence at some time in their lives, many of which were in that past year. This number grew to 19 per cent in 2016.

But behind every person struggling with substances is a family struggling to support their loved one.

Lerena Greig, executive director of Parents Empowering Parents, said their evidence-based support program for family members trying to help people coping with addiction is important to keep those families healthy.

“Addiction is a family illness. It impacts not just the parents – it impacts the siblings, it impacts the grandparents, it impacts the caregivers, the aunts and uncles,” Greig said.

“What happens with addiction is if you don’t have some knowledge and some education on how to keep yourself healthy, in the midst of supporting your loved one, you can get co-sick. So what happens is the cycle has an opportunity to continue because everybody’s getting sick in the midst of it.”

Greig said when the economy is both good and bad, they see an increase in people attending their support groups.

“When things are good, when money is flowing, (the) addiction rate is high. When things are bad and the economy is slow, addiction rates are high,” Greig said.

But Greig said it is more complex than just an economic issue – there are multiple ways to get addicted and there are multiple ways to get into recovery.

“A lot of the basis with addiction is escapism,” Greig said, mainly escapism from pain.

Families can come to the group and learn how to not let their loved ones’ addiction take over their life.

“We can educate people on the things that they need to do and put into place right and come back to health. Because you can interfere in their addiction when you’re healthy,” Greig said.

But for all those who are reaching out, Greig said other families are feeling shame and are afraid to ask for help. Greig said their internal research found some families visited their website for six months before reaching out and joining the group.

Since COVID-19 started, Greig said they are seeing an increase in their attendance, but Greig said that could be due to becoming more well-known due to an increase in funding and becoming more accessible to people across the province thanks to hosting their meetings online.

COVID-19 and substances

For anyone suffering from substance use disorders, Hyman and Greig both said the isolation and cultural disconnection will make it more challenging to stay mentally well and sober.

Canadian report on the state of public health released this week shows that across the country residents are struggling with mental health and addiction.

While the majority of Canadians over the age of 15 didn’t change their substance consumption in the early days of the pandemic, some did report an increase in alcohol (14 per cent), cannabis (6.5 per cent) or tobacco (3.3 per cent) consumption. People between the ages of 15 and 34 were more likely to increase their consumption and those with already poor mental health were more likely to increase their substance use.

People with existing substance use disorders felt an additional strain due to social distancing and limited trips outside of the home, which may have reduced access to services like support groups.

While these restrictions were hard on everyone struggling with substance use disorders, those facing opioid addictions were hit even harder, making the opioid crisis worse across all of Canada.

Before the pandemic, there had been a 13-per-cent decrease in opioid overdose deaths in Canada between 2018 and 2019, particularly in Alberta and British Columbia, but the pandemic has set back that progress with an increase in deaths due to the crisis. One of the reasons opioid poisoning deaths have increased is due to the increasing toxicity of the the illegal drug supply since the start of the pandemic.

While British Columbia has been hit the hardest, Alberta has seen an increase in deaths since the pandemic began. In the first six months of 2020, data shows 449 people have died from an apparent unintentional opioid poisoning.

In the most recent quarter, 284 people have died from an apparent unintentional fentanyl-related poisoning, compared to 130 people in the previous quarter. Alberta saw a significant increase in opioid-related deaths in the three-month period from April to June this year (301 total), up from the previously recorded high of 211 deaths in a three-month period in 2018.

And while COVID-19 makes it more difficult to cope with substance use issues because of isolation and decreased access to services, those who use substances are at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and having severe outcomes.

Grief and heartbreak

For those left behind after a life ends from substance use, they struggle with grief, anger, guilt and heartbreak.

After the years of watching her husband suffer and try to support him, Bourgeois said she felt like she lost her husband all over again when he died.

“I really do feel like we lost Marcel two times – once to the mental health and addiction and then again when he took his life in March 2020,” Bourgeois said.

The mom of two boys, now 9 and 11 years old, has found good resources and support, like Stop Abuse In Families and Al-Anon, and wants to keep talking about mental health and addiction to raise awareness and reduce the shame and stigma.

“I think the only way we’re going to get out of it is if we talk about it,” Bourgeois said.

Bourgeois said there needs to be more support for people suffering from substance use disorders because families can’t support them on their own. When the worst case scenario happens and a loved one dies, the families are left picking up the pieces of their lives.

“We miss him dearly, even though the past two to three years were unbelievably hard and it is very frustrating to deal with a person caught in the throes of addiction and depression and anxiety. I miss the person he was when we first met. I miss my friend.”

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Great West Newspapers, covering rural Alberta issues.


If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, you can call Alberta’s 24-hour mental health helpline 1-877-303-2642. The addiction helpline can be reached at 1-866-332-2322 and is also available 24/7. If you are having suicidal thoughts or you know someone who is, you can get help by calling the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566 or by texting 45645. Alberta’s community and social services helpline can be reached by dialing 211. The 24-hour distress line is 780-482-4357 (HELP). The rural distress line for northern Alberta is 1-800-232-7288. If you or someone you know is at risk of an immediate crisis, call 911.
Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporterAbout the Author: Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Great West Newspapers based in St. Albert, Alta. Read more

Source: St. Alberta Today

Great West Newspaper: Struggling For Hope – Part 7

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The Thumbs Up Foundation is honoured to support Great West Newspaper’s “Struggling For Hope” 8-part series. Journalist Jennifer Henderson investigates the relationship between the mental health of Albertans and our economy.

Thanks to the network of participating papers in the Thumbs Up sponsored features:

A HUGE thank you to all involved!!

Part 7 – ‘It did get taken out on me’: Domestic abuse climbs during economic downturn, pandemic

This is the seventh part of Struggling for Hope, a special feature series examining the intersections between economic instability and mental health needs. Read our introduction to the series here.

The 2015 spike in abuse Palmer experienced was not rare for people suffering from abuse across the province.

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Angela Palmer spent years in an abusive relationship before leaving with her children. JENNIFER HENDERSON/St. Albert Gazette

Angela Palmer found herself in a cycle of domestic abuse with her former partner, which drove her into a deep depression and suicide attempt in 2015.

Palmer, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, had been with her partner for over 10 years and they had several children together, but the abuse led her to eventually leave her partner and take her children with her.

“About five years ago I found myself in a recurring cycle. My partner would use drugs, and every time it would come up, I end up leaving and going and staying at a family member’s house,” Palmer said.

“It was always the lash-outs. I was always the problem.”

During that relationship, Palmer spent time in safe houses and kept a bug-out bag in her vehicle in case she had to leave and didn’t have time to pack her things.

“It’s been a rocky road,” she said.

Palmer’s former partner has a brain injury and struggled with substance abuse. All along, she said it felt like she was dating two different people.

“There was this good guy and then there was the bad guy.”

When Palmer’s former partner would use drugs, his personality would change, and she could immediately tell he was going to start becoming abusive.

During the cycle, Palmer would suffer from verbal, emotional, financial and some physical abuse.

“Sometimes I did fear for my life. And I knew that I couldn’t be there.”

Palmer’s former partner worked in the oil and gas industry on the rigs while she was the stay-at-home parent. He struggled when the industry slowed down and his work and income dried up.

Around four years ago, he went into heavy duty equipment operation – but that came with its own struggles. The work was seasonal, and rainy or wet conditions could shut him down.“That does put a toll on somebody when they’re trying to support a family and pay for stuff,” Palmer said – and he directed his stress toward her.

“I think it did get taken out on me.”

In 2015, as oil prices plunged and a recession swept into Alberta, Palmer attempted to take her own life.

“There were a couple times where I felt like taking my own life. Five years ago, I did attempt it once and failed, thankfully,” Palmer said.

Economic impacts

The 2015 spike in abuse Palmer experienced was not rare for people suffering from abuse across the province.

In Calgary, a correlation was found between dropping oil prices and a rise in calls for support for domestic violence, with every $10 U.S. fall in the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) resulting in an extra call for help every two days.

Lana Wells, an associate professor at the University of Calgary and the Brenda Strafford Chair in the Prevention of Domestic Violence at the Faculty of Social Work, said economic conditions are one of the many factors that may impact domestic violence.

“That added stress – it’s not an excuse, but it’s a contributing factor,” Wells said.

Studies exploring domestic violence during the recession that hit in 2008 showed the domestic violence rate for couples feeling high financial strain was 9.5 per cent, compared to 2.7 per cent of for couples who reported feeling a low level of financial strain. While many studies indicate there is a connection between economic stress and domestic violence, the relationship is reciprocal: economic stress may increase the risk of domestic violence, but the abuse may also cause financial problems for survivors and trap them in poverty and an abusive relationship.

Jan Reimer, executive director of the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters, said the downturn in the economy has brought a lot of stress on the shoulders of families.

Even when times are good, intimate partner violence will also spike – people have money to spend on drugs and alcohol, for instance, and there is a lot of workers going in and out of camps from around the country, which can lead them to rely more on substances to cope with the camp lifestyle. Reimer said when the economy is really good in Alberta, domestic violence calls for support increase.

Due to this, Alberta tends to rate in the top three highest numbers of domestic violence across the country, Reimer said.

COVID-19 adding pressure

Right now with COVID-19 adding even more pressure along with the recession, the picture is not good for domestic violence rates. Reimer said calls for support are high across the world, and the United Nations is calling the violence against women a “shadow pandemic”.

“We are really concerned about what’s happening in homes,” Reimer said.

“It’s really underreported as well. So we know that there are a lot of families that are going through difficult times right now.”

In Alberta, between mid-March and mid-September, RCMP recorded a 12-per-cent rise in calls involving domestic violence compared to the previous year.

Reimer said the amount and severity of domestic violence incidents have been high since the pandemic arrived.

“Police are saying that when they are responding to calls, it is a much higher level severity than they have seen previously,” Reimer said.

She added regarding stay-at-home orders, for many families, home isn’t a safe place to be.

The executive director said before the pandemic hit, shelters were turning away women. Now, with reduced capacity because of COVID-19, there is not enough support available for women.

In St. Albert, calls about domestic abuse have more than tripled since the start of the pandemic.

Stop Abuse In Families (SAIF) Society is reporting its numbers have spiked since the pandemic began in March, and the society continues to handle more than three times its usual amount of clients as the months go on.

Areni Kelleppan, executive director of SAIF, said the calls are “unprecedented” but the society’s staff are working hard to serve all those coming to them in need.

“It’s been pretty significant,” Kelleppan said.

“A lot of people are in abusive relationships who never seek help, so they’ll never go to a shelter, they won’t seek help, they’ll just cope … they just learned to live with this. And with COVID, it just exacerbated things.”

1208 grants CC 2423

Areni Kelleppan, the executive director for Stop Abuse in Families (SAIF), says the level of calls the organization has received during this pandemic are “unprecedented.” CHRIS COLBOURNE/St. Albert Gazette

Typically, SAIF has an average of 25 to 30 calls per month. This March, they had 59 calls, six of which were reported as COVID-19 related. In April, they received 100 calls, with 29 reported as COVID-19 related. In May, they received 76 calls with 10 being reported as COVID-19 related. In June, they received 101 calls, with 28 reported as COVID-19 related.

In the St. Albert RCMP’s latest quarterly report, police said they received 30 calls about domestic assaults in the first three months of 2020, compared to 27 calls in the last quarter of 2019.

Kelleppan said many of the calls to SAIF are from people asking questions about abuse and staff helping them understand what abuse is. People could also be sitting at home alone during COVID-19 processing old trauma, or people who would typically access other services, like sexual assault supports, are coming to SAIF instead.

Kelleppan said due to cuts in funding and an increase in calls for service, the SAFFRON Sexual Assault Centre as well as the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton (SACE) have been overwhelmed with calls and wait times have gone up, driving people who need support to SAIF as well.

“We’ve become one of the only games in town, for lack of a better word.”

The executive director said there is no one reason why domestic abuse calls are on the rise, and the issue is a complex one, but factors that can exacerbate an already abusive situation include hits to the economy, working from home, job losses and money problems, spending a lot of time together, alcohol consumption and isolation from friends and family.

“It’s not just one thing, and I think it would be remiss of me to say (it’s one thing). It’s a complex set of factors. And people cope differently – and without any of their coping mechanisms, crap hits the fan,” Kelleppan said.

And with a need for services increasing, rural communities may face unique barriers to getting them.

One of the biggest challenges for smaller rural communities is transportation to safe spaces to stay.

“Generally, transportation has been a huge barrier for women accessing shelter … And in rural Alberta, you might be a long way away from a shelter. How are you going to get there?”

In Hanna, Alta., for example, the closest women’s shelter is in Brooks, 134 km away.

And for women with kids and jobs, it’s nearly impossible to uproot their lives and go stay in a shelter outside of their communities, Reimer said.

Becky Viste, community learning co-ordinator at the Hanna Learning Centre, said their biggest struggle is getting people to shelters.

“In rural Alberta, whether you’re trying to get to a women’s shelter or trying to get to a COVID-19 test, we have no taxi, no bus. And we do have some for-profit businesses that will take our residents to medical appointments in the city. But the cost of that is over and above, around $400 for a trip to Calgary or Red Deer,” Viste said.

The community has relied on finding volunteers, but that can be a big safety issue.

“Because now not only are you trying to get the victim of domestic violence away from the community, but you’re now also having somebody volunteer to possibly be confronted. We try to do it in the most confidential manner we can, however, we also need to inform our driver that this person is fleeing (a) domestic situation,” Viste said.

On top of that, it’s very difficult to get shelters to hold beds while they secure transportation, Viste said.

Root causes and contributing factors

Wells said there are multiple root causes for why people use violence in their relationships. Men with hostile attitudes toward women tend to act more on those attitudes; men who are around violence or who witnessed violence as children are also more likely to act in an abusive manner.

“Men who hang out in peer groups or networks that are violent are often more violent,” Wells said.

One in six men who have been exposed to domestic violence as children go on to be perpetrators of abuse.

Wells said intimate partner violence is a learned behaviour and therefore can be prevented. Research shows teens who are in violent relationships are more likely to be in violent relationships when they are older.

Overall, Wells said society and social conditions can reinforce violence, including football events like when the Calgary Stampeders play the Edmonton Eskimos, and the arrival of the Calgary Stampede.

According to a study, domestic violence calls on the seventh, ninth and tenth day of the ten-day Calgary Stampede event go up 15 per cent compared to an average day. During weekends and summer months domestic violence rates in Calgary.

The Alberta rivalry football games were also associated with a 15-per-cent increase in domestic violence reports, and when Calgary played in the Grey Cup there was a 40-per-cent increase in domestic violence reports.

Wells research showed Calgary Flames games seemed to have no relationship to domestic violence calls, even against the Edmonton Oilers. Overall, research shows that the degree to which violence is part of the game itself has shown to have a positive correlation with domestic violence incidents.

Holidays like New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter, Canada Day, Labour Day, Valentine’s Day and Halloween all showed a spike in domestic violence calls in Calgary, although research showed the impact of holidays was geographically dependant and there would be different outcomes for rates of domestic violence depending on where the research was conducted in the world.

During the 2013 floods in Calgary, there was an increase of 6.6 reported incidents of domestic violence per day, representing a 14-per-cent increase from the average.

Expensive cultural problem

While these incidents of intimate partner violence may be influenced by holidays and economic conditions, domestic violence also has an overall impact on the economy.

According to a June 2012 report, there had been $600 million spent in the previous five years on supporting those suffering from domestic violence, with $521 million coming out of the pockets of Albertans through their tax dollars.

“Taxpayers pay a lot through health care systems, through justice, through women’s shelters, through loss of time at work. It impacts everybody,” Wells said.

Wells said while the problem is often framed as an individual struggle, all Albertans are impacted by it financially.

But investment in quality prevention and intervention can be cost-effective, returning as much as $20 for every dollar invested. Estimates show the implementation of preventative programs could cost $9.6 million while generating net cost benefits of more than $54 million.

To help begin to solve the complex problem of intimate partner violence, Wells said there needs to be more support for men.

Domestic and sexual abuse can be done by either men or women. However, Wells said overall intimate partner violence comes from men 83 per cent of the time, while 90 per cent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by men.

“It is a gender issue,” Wells said. “How are we socializing our boys and men and how can we disrupt that socialization?”

Wells said there is no silver bullet to stop the violence, but there are multiple factors that can be addressed to make changes.

Cultures of manhood and how men are socialized from birth can lead to men being less comfortable being vulnerable, Wells said.

“All the way from when they are born and told not to cry as a boy, all the way to ‘suck it up’, and then to be a protector and provider. I think those messages reinforce not being vulnerable,” Wells said.

Wells said we need to unpack the socialization and expectations on how men are supposed to behave.

“I think men have an amazing role to play with stopping violence, within themselves, within their peer groups and within society,” Wells said.

The expert said right now in Alberta, there is a gap in services for men who have been victimized, who are perpetrators or men who want to be allies and help with the prevention work.

“We don’t have enough support and program services going to them. So I think there’s a huge gap.”

Wells said society also needs to support men who are in the oil and gas industry or other trades.

“One of the biggest crises is going to be all these men who are out of work – not just with violence overall, but for mental health and wellbeing,” Wells said, adding men are socialized to not seek help when they are struggling.

Wells and her team are trying to work with leaders and influencers within communities so they can start to create a new cultural normal.

On a policy level, Wells said public health needs to be supporting new fathers and giving them paternity leave because that is a “transformative time in men’s (lives)” – it’s a hard time for men, and it’s a time when they could be seeking support.

Wells said intervention in schools would be valuable, and infusing equality and healthy relationship education through the curriculum – overall, the provincial government needs to create a comprehensive strategy that guides investment in this area. The work would also include the partnerships of male-dominated industries and sports organization to be leaders in the field.

Safe and happy

Palmer is now out of her abusive relationship and living with her children in a home on her own.

“My current situation isn’t a danger,” Palmer said.

“I am happy to have my own place and it feels good. I feel strong. I’m not gonna lie – there are times where I feel like I could break down, but for the most part the kids and I are happy in our new place.”

Palmer still coparents with her former partner and the family took a trip to B.C. together over the summer, where Palmer helped him out with the kids.

“He still is supportive of them,” Palmer said.

The mom still holds out hope that one day, he will get better and seek treatment for his substance abuse.

“I’m just trying to figure out where I’m going. When somebody has a drug problem and you want them to get help, but they can’t, nobody else can do it but themselves. I just have hope that one day he will, but it’s just been so long that I just feel like he won’t.”

Through it all, Palmer has had a good support system, which has brought her through the darkest days.

“I’ve had a good support system and it’s because of the support that I have, that they think I was able to get to where I am today, including professional supports,” Palmer said.

“It feels safe.”

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Great West Newspapers, covering rural Alberta issues.


If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, you can call Alberta’s 24-hour mental health helpline 1-877-303-2642. The addiction helpline can be reached at 1-866-332-2322 and is also available 24/7. If you are having suicidal thoughts or you know someone who is, you can get help by calling the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566 or by texting 45645. Alberta’s community and social services helpline can be reached by dialing 211. The 24-hour distress line is 780-482-4357 (HELP). The rural distress line for northern Alberta is 1-800-232-7288. If you or someone you know is at risk of an immediate crisis, call 911.
Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporterAbout the Author: Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Great West Newspapers based in St. Albert, Alta. Read more

Source: St. Alberta Today

Great West Newspaper: Struggling For Hope – Part 6

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The Thumbs Up Foundation is honoured to support Great West Newspaper’s “Struggling For Hope” 8-part series. Journalist Jennifer Henderson investigates the relationship between the mental health of Albertans and our economy.

Thanks to the network of participating papers in the Thumbs Up sponsored features:

A HUGE thank you to all involved!!

Part 6 – ‘He was the best guy’: Questions, grief and advocacy follow suicide deaths

This is the sixth part of Struggling for Hope, a special feature series examining the intersections between economic instability and mental health needs. Read our introduction to the series here.

Sixteen more people die by suicide for every per cent the unemployment rate increases.

Braden Titus

Braden Titus

A week before his death, having recently quit taking antidepressants, Braden Titus was “completely and utterly broken” and experiencing a mental health crisis, says his mom Kim.

He was waiting to see a therapist when he took his own life in September 2015.

“He was awesome. He was the best guy,” Kim told Great West Newspapers.

Braden, 31, was a non-judgmental guy who loved to cook and owned his own home renovation business, according to Kim. But being a small business owner was stressful, and he felt like he was falling into a “funk” due to drinking and partying, so eight months before the tragedy, he asked Kim for a recommendation for a family doctor who could get him on antidepressants.

Kim told her son she’d noticed a correlation between him “getting into a funk” and how hard and often he partied – an assessment he agreed with. He said he’d stop drinking and smoking, get on the “straight and narrow” and focus on things he loved like camping, cooking and music.

His mental health began improving after he started taking antidepressants. Kim made him promise to continue making lifestyle changes that supported his mental wellbeing, and he quit smoking and started working out regularly.

Eventually, he felt so well that he decided to quit his antidepressants cold turkey.

Kim, worried, told him it wasn’t safe to quit without a doctor’s input, but he said he didn’t feel any different when he was on them. A week later, he sent her a text saying he was “all messed up”: “Those pills hurt me more than they ever helped me,” he told her.

“He walked into the house completely and utterly broken. I had never seen him like that,” Kim told Great West Newspapers. She rushed him to the doctor, where he said he had been having suicidal thoughts. He told the doctor he would be dead if it wasn’t for his mom, dad and dog Rio.

“I don’t know – how much more at risk did he need to be?” Kim said.

The doctor prescribed new medication for Braden, scheduled another appointment a week later and gave him a 1-800 number to call in case of an emergency. It was a three-week wait to get in to talk to a therapist, but Kim said she felt Braden could wait that long with the support of his family.

Just a week later, hours before they discovered Braden had completed suicide, Kim woke up around 4 a.m. with an anxiety attack – the first of her life. Not wanting to wake her husband so early, she hung out at her house for a few hours. Finally, she woke him up and told him they needed to go check on their son. The couple rushed out of their Airdrie home and drove to Calgary.

When they arrived, Braden’s dog Rio was going crazy. Braden was already gone.

In 2015, Braden was one of 668 Albertans who took their own life, the most suicides in decades of record keeping. That grim record was influenced by mass layoffs in the oil industry as Alberta fell into a recession.

In the wake of the economic crash, Alberta’s suicide rate in the first half of 2015 jumped 30 per cent compared to the previous year. Three hundred twenty-seven people took their own lives between January and June alone. Demand for counselling also increased, with the Calgary Distress Centre seeing an 80-per-cent increase in phone calls that year.

While the suicide rate in the province has not hit that same mark since 2015, data still shows high numbers in Alberta when compared to other provinces and countries.

Alberta’s suicide deaths continue to be closely tied to the economy. For every one per cent increase in the provincial unemployment rate, 16 more people will die by suicide, according to a 2019 report from the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.

This phenomenon is not isolated in Alberta. Simon Fraser University psychologist Dan Bilsker said across the world suicide has been closely linked to the economy.

“When unemployment rates rise, suicide tends to increase immediately,” Bilsker said.

“It’s one of the strongest predictors of the suicide rates.”

Suicide impacts all demographics, but in Alberta the vast majority of deaths – 75 per cent – involve men. Almost half of those are middle-aged men between 40 and 64 years old.

LGBTQ+ youth between 14 and 25 years of age are also at higher risk, with some 63 to 67 per cent reporting having suicidal thoughts. Suicide risk is also five to six times higher for Indigenous youth compared with non-Indigenous youth.

In 2018, overall 7,254 Albertans visited the emergency department due to a suicide attempt. Despite higher death rates among men, women attempted suicide two to three times more oftenIn 2010, there were 1,833 hospital admissions for suicide attempts or self-inflicted injuries and women made up 58 per cent of the total; emergency rooms also saw 5,053 visits that year for attempted suicide or self-inflicted injuries, and women made up 61 per cent of those patients.

Research shows women attempt suicide 10 times more often than they complete it.

Thirty-two years ago, Leanne Heuchert felt so hopeless and lost she tried to end her life.

Heuchert still recalls that day – at just 13 years old – when she swallowed a bunch of prescription pills, panicked halfway through and called a friend for help.

Now 44, Heuchert is in a much better place. Years of mental health support have helped her to become a healthy, happy person. But when she was a young teen, she would think about killing herself.

“I would say, ‘You know what, if I do this, if I cut this, I don’t have to feel anything any more,'” Heuchert told Great West last year. She agreed to have her story shared again for this series.

“It was just the idea that my brain would stop making noise because there was so much going on. There was so much anxiety and there was so much sadness and just the idea that, if I do this, I’ll feel that little bit of pain, but then there’ll be nothing.”


Leanne Heuchert.

After her attempt, Heuchert was put in counselling with her family, which had already been impacted by suicide. She learned that when she was six years old, her 28-year-old brother Doug had died by suicide. Doug had passed away when she was so young her family hadn’t revealed the manner of his death until her own attempt.

“At a very young age, I saw the damage that it did to my family and I wasn’t able to understand why my family was reacting to my brother’s death the way they were. Any death is tragic, but there were a lot of unanswered questions and I believe there was a lot of guilt and confusion in my family,” she said.

Don’t talk about it

One of the reasons men tend to suffer more is because they often don’t share their concerns or distress.

“They’re often trying to keep it to (themselves) – not just keep your feelings to yourself, but don’t tell your own story,” Bilsker said.

For men, sharing their feelings and problems is often considering to be a “shameful sign of weakness” in our culture, Bilsker said, whereas women share their troubles with their friends as a positive coping mechanism.

“Men are not taught really good coping, psychological coping, because collaborative problem-solving is a really important mechanism of getting through hard times in life,” he said.

“Men have been taught to adopt a stoic approach as a philosophy. You don’t complain, you don’t whine, you do what has to be done. You take care of others in the community and take care of your family.”

Buried problems can lead to serious mental health concerns and, in the worst cases, suicides. Men not taking care of themselves through their lives contributes to a lower life expectancy.

“So many people commit suicide in their 50s, 40s and 30s. The years of life lost that it accounts for is really an enormous number,” Bilsker said.

“Suicide in particular really stood out for me and some other areas where men’s health really suffers in relation to women.”

A myth around this lower life expectancy, Bilsker explained, is that men can be risk-takers who don’t take the time to do things properly. But that simply isn’t true, he said.

Self-care is also more normalized for women than men. Bilsker said a traditional male behaviour pattern is to be very fit in their younger years but making that less of a priority as they start joining the workforce, putting their overall health at risk.

To cope with problems, men are taught if they are going through a hard time, it is culturally appropriate to turn to alcohol, Bilsker said.

“That’s a really dangerous psychological thing to do because alcohol just inhibits you. It interferes with your thinking and problem solving and it leaves you more likely to do something impulsive,” Bilsker said.

When the worst case scenario happens and men attempt suicide, they generally use much more lethal means.

“I think it’s because by the time men reach that point, they see no hope. They don’t think they’re going to be rescued. They say, ‘This is it,’” Bilsker said.

Experts say when men reach out for mental health help, they are often in a crisis situation, whereas women often reach out for help sooner.

While death by suicide used to be more likely among young men, that has slowly crept up to middle-aged men. Bilsker said there has been little research on why that has happened, but it could be fuelled by the rapidly changing culture we live in. In a workplace, older men can also feel outdated or less relevant than younger employees.

“These men (who) have been (working) for a long time are expendable,” Bilsker said. “I think men, historically – and it may have changed – more than women, identify their own worth with the work they are doing.”

In Medicine Hat, a string of suicides struck the city this year, many from the same group of friends. Though the final death toll isn’t known due to how complicated it can be to classify and report suicides, some estimates say up to seven men took their own lives over a period of several months. All were in their 30s and 40s and many had been involved in the city’s hockey community.

“What the concern is, for us at this point, and where we’re really super concerned, is it’s a cluster,” said Cori Fischer, executive director for the Alberta Southeast Region for the Canadian Mental Health Association.

“The individuals are known to each other.”

People who know someone who has completed suicide are at a greater risk of completing suicide themselves, Fischer added.

“General research will tell you that if you know someone who has died by suicide, it becomes an acceptable coping mechanism, it becomes an option, where it may not have been considered an option before,” Fischer said.

And while surviving family members are at a greater risk, they are also left to suffer unimaginable pain and grief. Research estimates each person who dies by suicide leaves behind six or more suicide survivors – people who’ve lost someone they care about deeply and who are left grieving and struggling to understand.

Les Dunford from Westlock, Alta., lost his son Bryan to suicide nine years ago. Les is a senior reporter for Town & Country This Week, a Great West Newspapers publication.

“I think everybody probably has that same questions in their mind: ‘Why didn’t we see this? Why didn’t we notice? What did we miss? Should we have been a little bit more in tune with the problems he was having?’” Les said.

Bryan 1

Bryan with Kaluha in August 2007 at his Grandpa Mac’s birthday party on the Dunford farm.

Bryan, who was 29, was a normal kid who enjoyed hanging out with his brother, going camping and spending time in Drumheller to explore where the dinosaurs used to roam.

But Bryan always struggled with his mental health.

“We knew he had some struggles that began to show up as a boy,” Les said, recalling Bryan’s difficulties with his inner feelings and thoughts. But Bryan seemed to be managing his mental health well, until he started working.

“When he was out working in the working world, it just seemed like things kind of went sideways on him a little bit,” Les said.

Bryan lived in Edmonton for a while but then moved to Calgary, where Les believes he may have been using drugs a little to cope with his mental health issues. Eventually, Bryan landed in the hospital being treated for his mental health needs, and Les took him back to the Dunford farm in Westlock, where he stayed for a while.

Les said those days with him at home were some of the family’s best days with Bryan.

But Bryan moved back to Edmonton and soon ended up back in the hospital under close supervision. Les and his family would visit Bryan, signing him in and out for visits.

On June 9, the day before Les and his wife Joan’s 33rd wedding anniversary, Bryan signed himself out on his own and said he was going to Canada Place to apply for medical unemployment. Instead, he went to McDonalds for a meal, then jumped from a bridge into the North Saskatchewan River. A bystander watched him fall into the water, though his body was never recovered.

“We really have no closure and it still remains very hard for her especially. Yes, I continue to hurt too, but perhaps have come to grips with the fact that now, more than nine years later, he is for sure never returning to us, and I doubt we will ever know where his remains are,” Les said.

060 Bryan and Roy

Bryan and his brother Roy.

Advocating for change

Bilsker said one of the ways to help support men and change the cultural conversation around mental health is to get away from the assumption that men are a source of suffering and pain simply due to their gender.

“We need to go away from a shaming approach. It’s not really effective as a way to change people,” Bilsker said.

“We don’t create a stigma around being male. We identify problematic patterns and we teach new ways of coping.”

And advocating for change in the mental health system is Kim Titus and her family, who started the Thumbs Up Foundation in 2016 to honour the legacy for her son who was passionate about helping people. The Thumbs Up Foundation is the financial sponsor for Struggling for Hope.

Thumbs Up’s program advocates for structural positive changes in the healthcare system. In January, the foundation received $500,000 from the provincial government earmarked for organizations supporting mental health and addiction initiatives in Alberta. Kim said the funding is going toward a pilot project, Harmonized Health, which integrates different areas of health care and brings together professionals who don’t typically work together, like doctors and therapists, in order to support people who struggle with their mental health.

The pilot project is aimed at providing new models of health care to help inform the government about the benefits of the new programs and ideas for what may need to be funded in the future.

This is the third pilot project the foundation has run.

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Great West Newspapers, covering rural Alberta issues.


If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, you can call Alberta’s 24-hour mental health helpline 1-877-303-2642. The addiction helpline can be reached at 1-866-332-2322 and is also available 24/7. If you are having suicidal thoughts or you know someone who is, you can get help by calling the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566 or by texting 45645. Alberta’s community and social services helpline can be reached by dialing 211. The 24-hour distress line is 780-482-4357 (HELP). The rural distress line for northern Alberta is 1-800-232-7288. If you or someone you know is at risk of an immediate crisis, call 911.

Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporterAbout the Author: Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Great West Newspapers based in St. Albert, Alta. Read more

Source: St. Alberta Today

Great West Newspaper: Struggling For Hope – Part 5

By | Uncategorized

The Thumbs Up Foundation is honoured to support Great West Newspaper’s “Struggling For Hope” 8-part series. Journalist Jennifer Henderson investigates the relationship between the mental health of Albertans and our economy.

Thanks to the network of participating papers in the Thumbs Up sponsored features:

A HUGE thank you to all involved!!

Part 5 – ‘It’s scary’: Camp lifestyle stretches oilfield workers to the breaking point

This is the fifth part of Struggling for Hope, a special feature series examining the intersections between economic instability and mental health needs. Read our introduction to the series here.

“You start thinking, ‘This is not where I want to be at 50 years old.’ And I know for a fact, it’s definitely not where my husband wanted to be at 55.”

0212 Kneehill Pump 1

A pumpjack in Kneehill County near Three Hills, Alta., on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. GREAT WEST NEWSPAPERS/Photo

After a 16-hour day at work in an oilfield camp, Lana Miller only has the energy left to FaceTime her boyfriend before she falls asleep for the night to get some rest so she can work another long day again.

Miller, who has been a chef for almost 30 years, has spent the last five years working long hours in camp kitchens, in remote areas spending time away from her family.

Working in oil camps is not an easy life. Despite the good pay that often accompanies oil jobs, the work itself requires long periods of time away from family, often in remote areas and difficult conditions. On top of that, the volatile nature of the industry and low job security can take a toll on the employees’ mental health.

Miller said because the job is so tough and workers are so far away from their support networks, they quickly forge strong bonds with each other to get through the long hours, long days and difficult working conditions.

“Even though you don’t necessarily know people for a long stretch of time, you become family a lot more quickly and have to kind of take care of each other,” she said.

“Not only do you have to worry about your mental health and potentially your family’s for you being gone for long stretches, but then also staff – sometimes it’s their first time away from home doing this sort of thing … You kind of take them under your wing and guide them through that as best you can.”

This type of isolation from friends, family and community is not good for mental wellbeing, experts say.

Vincent Agyapong, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Alberta who works for the addiction and mental health unit for Alberta Health Services, worked in Fort McMurray treating patients and studying the demographic of people who are seeking help.

Agyapong said many people who seek help are from other areas of the country, such as the east coast, and are on a three weeks on, one week off schedule.

“People have to stay in the camps for two weeks at a time without any family – there is much more to (these mental health challenges) than just the economy,” Agyapong said.

“It has a significant impact on families, because you are away from your family in an oilsands camp and there is really nothing there – you will be in a small room with one small TV.”

To cope with the isolation, Miller turns to FaceTime to try to connect with her loved ones, but for other people in camps, Miller said they might turn to the gym or to substances.

Substance use and abuse

Alcohol is generally the easiest substance to get your hands on, but Miller said she has been at camps where employees could access any drug they wanted.

“It’s an unspoken thing. A lot of people know it’s happening. As long as you don’t get caught and you’re not stupid about it, they pretty much let it pass,” she said.

In 2017, Alberta Health Services found workers in the oil and gas industry use alcohol at significantly higher rates (81.7 per cent) than the average for all other industries (71.5 per cent). And though the majority of those who drank were considered to be at low risk for harmful drinking, industry workers were nearly twice as likely to be at medium risk and three times as likely to be at high risk than other workers.

Meanwhile, male oilfield workers were much more likely to be classified as medium or high risk than female workers.

Dan Bilsker, a psychologist from Simon Fraser University, says men, who make up the majority of oilfield workers, are socially conditioned to deal with their emotions through alcohol consumption.

“Men are also taught that feelings are a really bad time and (if) you’re suffering psychologically, use alcohol to feel better,” he explained.

Agyapong said when he went to Fort McMurray in 2013 he saw “significant” substance use issues, including the use of cocaine. The economy was good at the time, but the social difficulties of the job – being isolated from family without a lot of options to fill their free time – contributed to this.

“They don’t really have a life, they don’t have family … so they get into cocaine use because it doesn’t stay in your system for a long time and they know they will pass a drug screening when they return to their shift,” Agyapong said.

He recalled emergency departments in Fort McMurray seeing cases of oil workers coming in with substance-induced psychosis – uncharacteristic paranoia and suspicion, visual and audio hallucinations.

“There are people who have never had any mental health problems before, and then someone will notice on their shift to be behaving bizarrely. So there’ll be people who still have a job but they’re having a psychotic break related to substance abuse,” he said.

Miller said camps have plenty of safety measures in place, but some look the other way if staff members are impaired on the job. Physical safety takes top priority, but mental health slips under the radar.

“They’re all ‘safety, safety, safety,’ but then … being at work under the influence of something isn’t safe, regardless of where you are or what you do for a living,” she said.

“I think there should be more to help people through (substance abuse) and kind of recognize that it does happen. I think a lot of (camps) are scared of getting shut down, to be quite honest.”

Miller said she would like to see wider supports within the industry, such as an anonymous support line employees could call to talk about their substance abuse or mental health struggles, without worrying that they might be risking their job security.

“It gets to the point where you feel like you don’t want to say anything, because you’re scared that it’s gonna be the one thing that gets you booted out the door. And with (jobs) being so tight to get in and be kept around these days, you obviously don’t want to rock the boat, right?”

Family struggles to cope

While camp life is hard, the families left behind also struggle to cope with a loved one being so far away for long stretches of time working in such a volatile industry.

Shelley Meakin-Chamzuk, whose husband Ron works in the oil and gas industry, said her husband’s wage was cut in half when the pandemic struck. Watching him deal with that hurt her own mental health, as did caring for six children while Ron had to work out of town through much of his career.

Meakin-Chamzuk battled post-partum depression and has struggled throughout her life with her mental health. Being separated from her husband proved a big challenge for her and her family.

“It’s been taxing. It’s had its moments that you just question everything,” she said.

Meakin-Chamzuk was bedridden for years due to inner cranial hypertension, making the situation even more difficult to manage.

She has watched other families split up because the distance proved too burdensome.

“Sometimes money isn’t everything. I think that was probably the biggest thing with the industry, is some women just couldn’t cope with raising their families on their own.”

Some experts have concluded the lifestyle that goes along with oil and gas work contributes to higher divorce rates, with Alberta often leading the divorce rates across the country.

Meakin-Chamzuk said the idea that life is easy for an oilfield wife and that there is always a lot of money is far from the truth.

“We’re just trying to survive, and it’s not the privileged life that I think a lot of people think it is,” Meakin-Chamzuk said.

“With my husband being away, and knowing his wife was sick, that was not easy on him. He’s very strong and very supportive … he never admitted it, but I know it was hard on him.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed their family deeper into stress as Ron took a major pay cut in order to help keep the company he was working for alive. From April to July this year, the entire family packed its bags to go help out for free, washing mats, cooking food and doing whatever chores there were in an effort to give the company a boost, thus keeping Ron employed.

“We’ve been as a family – have not been getting paid for it – but going and helping my husband, just so we can try to keep that company going,” Meakin-Chamzuk said. “We would all pack up and go to Fox Creek, and we would work out there.”

After chores, her youngest son, 15, would be homeschooled at a shack on the worksite.

“As awful as it sounds, it honestly sounds worse than it was. It was almost like we were part of something bigger than ourselves … I guess we probably felt proud that we were able to help Ron and help this company,” Meakin-Chamzuk said.

As money gets tighter, she is trying not to think about the state of her mental health. She knows what it feels like to be so depressed it’s hard to get out of bed, and she said she is determined not to get to that place again.

“You start thinking, ‘This is not where I want to be at 50 years old.’ And I know for a fact, it’s definitely not where my husband wanted to be at 55.”

Still, she says Ron has maintained a positive outlook and seems to be doing OK.

“He seems really, really good, but then again, he’s had to always been the strong one.”

While Meakin-Chamzuk said her family is struggling, she knows she is in a better position than many other families in the industry.

“I don’t know how young people are making it,” she said.

“We have seen where people are destitute. It’s scary – scary. And you can’t get back into the industry because it’s just so broken.”

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Great West Newspapers, covering rural Alberta issues.


If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, you can call Alberta’s 24-hour mental health helpline 1-877-303-2642.
The addiction helpline can be reached at 1-866-332-2322 and is also available 24/7.
If you are having suicidal thoughts or you know someone who is, you can get help by calling the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566 or by texting 45645.
Alberta’s community and social services helpline can be reached by dialing 211. The 24-hour distress line is 780-482-4357 (HELP).
The rural distress line for northern Alberta is 1-800-232-7288.
If you or someone you know is at risk of an immediate crisis, call 911.

Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporterAbout the Author: Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Great West Newspapers based in St. Albert, Alta. Read more

Source: St. Alberta Today

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