Rona Maynard on Mental Illness and the REAL Talking Cure
Talking History focuses on a wide range of topics in Canadian history, and it consists of articles by Canada's foremost historians and history experts. Our contributors use the power of narrative to bring the past to life and to show how it is not just relevant, but essential to our understanding of Canada and the world today. "Talking History" is a series made possible through a special funding grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage.
Rona Maynard has been a champion for mental health since 1997. When a suicide call turned up on her voicemail at Chatelaine, where she was Editor, she knew she had found her mission. The magazine’s award-winning health journalism reflected Rona's conviction that an illness of the mind deserves equal time with an illness of the body.
Early in my tenure as Editor of Chatelaine, I let my readers in on a secret. I had suffered from depression that took hold of me in childhood and did not let go until my mid-30s. In its grip, I hid behind a mask of competence—meeting every deadline as a busy freelance writer and making fettuccine from scratch because my family deserved the best. No one saw me spend entire days crying. At my lowest low, I realized that I couldn’t keep up my charade. Terrified of being exposed as a fraud, I finally called a mental health clinic.
When I first told this story in a 1997 editorial, you didn’t hear a lot about mental illness. The media ignored it; public figures generally kept their demons to themselves. I was speaking up for all the Chatelaine readers who were silently struggling with their own or a loved one’s mental illness, but also for the anxious child I used to be. I grew up in the shadow of my father’s drinking—rooted in a lifetime of untreated depression—and my mother’s rage at her choice of husband. I learned early that our anguish could never be acknowledged, much less named. By outing myself, I was taking the padlock off my tongue.
People told me I was brave, although I felt more exultant than courageous. I’d been well for 10 years, and I was thriving at the top of my profession. But as heartfelt letters poured in from all over this country, I learned just how risky it can be to speak frankly about mental illness. One reader, who’d survived a suicide attempt, confided that a friend had told her, "Everyone has troubles. You just caved in." People who’d reclaimed their lives on anti-depressants were being chided by their nearest and dearest for using a "chemical crutch." (Does anyone call insulin a “chemical crutch?) The most poignant letters ended with some version of the plea "If you print this, please don’t use my name or my career will be in trouble."
These people were turning to me because they knew almost no one else to trust with the unspeakable truth about themselves. They felt utterly alone, even though mental illness will strike one in five of us at some point in our lives. They had all been silenced by age-old stigma dating back to Neolithic times, when those who seemed a little odd were candidates for brutal surgery: holes cut in their skulls to release evil spirits. The mentally ill have been hidden in the family basement, chained to asylum walls and paraded to amuse anyone with a penny to spare. In Canada and elsewhere, they have been sterilized without consent—a practice that continued in Alberta until 1972.
You don’t have to know the details of this legacy of shame to feel its lingering taint. Fear of stigma goes a long way toward explaining why 60 percent of people with a mental illness still do not reach out for help. They figure they’ll be told to pull up their socks. And they could very well be right. Almost half of us believe that a diagnosis of mental illness is an excuse for bad behavior, according to a national survey by the Canadian Medical Association. 42 percent would stop socializing with a friend who had a mental illness. In the 21st century, ancient fears still cast anyone with a disorder of the mind as unreliable, unworthy, unfit for challenge.
But I’m not here to tell you how bad things are. In fact, I’ve never seen so many reasons for hope.
Word is out that mental illness has touched some of the most admired achievers of our time: Bruce Springsteen, David Beckham, J.K. Rowling, Robert Munsch, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Silken Laumann, among many others who have come forward in recent years. This wave of honesty has yet to reach the corridors of power in any significant way, but we do have a Cabinet Minister, Lisa Raitt, who talks about her bout with postpartum depression. And Orlando Da Silva, new president of the Ontario Bar Association, recently admitted to a lifetime of depression that he medicated with sleeping pills and alcohol, very nearly killing himself. Friends warned that speaking up would hurt his reputation but Da Silva was determined to help other lawyers overcome their fear of stigma and seek treatment.
By speaking about the unspeakable, those who have faced mental illness are creating a transformative public conversation, one story at a time. Even tragic stories are bringing hope to people who had none. When Robin Williams took his life last August, suicide hotlines reported an unprecedented two-month spike in calls. And countless people, like my friend Karen, took the padlocks off their tongues. When Karen admitted on Facebook that she’d once been hospitalized for depression, her post got 85 likes and comments like “You’re inspiring!” Privately, she told me there are people in her life who don’t get it, who treat her differently because of her illness. But at least she’s seen proof that they’re the ones with the problem.
It’s because so many people are telling the truth that mental illness is finally on the national agenda, attracting the attention once reserved for heart disease and cancer—philanthropic donations in the tens of millions, heavyweight corporate sponsors (notably Bell, which has committed more than $73 million) and serious coverage in the press. When The Globe and Mail launched an award-winning series on mental health in 2008, I knew my cause had come of age, just as breast cancer did years ago.
I remember when you weren’t supposed to talk about breasts, and shame prevented women from showing suspicious lumps to their doctors. A friend’s mother died of the disease because she waited too long, just as many with depression still do. I’ve come to think of mental illness as a cancer of the soul. And make no mistake: it can be fatal. Every year 4000 Canadians take their own lives. Many are shockingly young: only accidents kill more 15-to-24-year-olds than suicide. We’re finally starting to confront the truth. It’s no longer unheard-of for obituaries to replace the code word “suddenly” with “died by suicide.”
Eighteen years have passed since I wrote about depression in Chatelaine. Rereading that landmark editorial today, I’m struck by how much I left out. The guilt at missing my son’s childhood. The fantasies involving a bathtub and a razor blade. The irrational wish to trade places with a friend who was dying of cancer, because she loved her life and mine was just a burden. I wasn’t ready for the world to see the whole truth beside the photo of my executive self, perfectly coiffed in a red power dress with pointy lapels. I was groping for courage, with some distance to go.
But here’s the thing: courage is catching. I’ve come full circle, drawing from stories like Orlando Da Silva’s what Chatelaine readers once drew from me. I feel part of a movement that gathers clout and urgency with each new disclosure. People once overlooked and shunned are banding together to press for action. We’re speaking out on campuses, educating employers and creating free walk-in clinics. We’re changing your workplace, your school, your community. And we’ve only just begun.
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Unsinkable, by Silken Laumann
About the book: Just ten weeks before the 1992 Olympic Games, Silken Laumann, the reigning world champion in single sculls rowing, suffered a brutal accident that left her right leg shattered and useless. Doctors doubted that she would ever row competitively again. But 27 days, five operations and countless hours of gruelling rehabilitation later, Silken was back in her racing shell, ready to pursue her dream. When the starter's pistol rang out on August 2, she made the greatest comeback in Canadian sports history, rowing to a bronze-medal finish while the world watched, captivated by her remarkable story. Silken became one of Canada's most beloved Olympians and has continued to inspire, encouraging people to dream, live in the moment and embrace life's unexpected, difficult and amazing journey.
But there was a massive barrier in her path that she has never before spoken about, a hidden story much darker than the tale of her accident. Now, Silken bravely shines a spotlight on all the obstacles she has encountered and overcome in Unsinkable, a memoir that reveals not only new insights into her athletic success and triumph over physical adversity, but also the intense personal challenges of her past and the fierce determination she applies to living a bold, loving and successful life today.
My Mother's Daughter, by Rona Maynard
About the book: As a little girl, Maynard soon came to see that her family was not an ordinary one. Her father, Max, was an artist and an alcoholic. Her mother was Fredelle Maynard, a brilliant academic who could not get a teaching job because she was a woman. Instead she became a writer—the author of Raisins and Almonds—and, above all, a driving, loving, ambitious, overpowering mother.
In her shadow (and that of younger sister Joyce, who went off at eighteen to live with J.D. Salinger) Rona took time to blossom as a writer and editor in Toronto. This book takes us through her career, step by step, including the miseries of being accused by her son’s teachers—and her own mother—of being a bad mother, overly concerned with her own career.
Rona’s strong, direct style will ring true for every working woman. Through the magic of her writing, she gives a clear-eyed and affectionate account of her relationship with a demanding, loving mother.
Between Gods, by Alison Pick
About the book: Alison Pick was born in the 1970s and raised in a supportive, loving family. She grew up laughing with her sister and cousins, and doting on her grandparents. Then as a teenager, Alison made a discovery that instantly changed her understanding of her family, and her vision for her own life, forever. She learned that her Pick grandparents, who had escaped from the Czech Republic during WWII, were Jewish--and that most of this side of the family had died in concentration camps. She also discovered that her own father had not known of this history until, in his 20s, he had a chance encounter with an old family friend—and then he, too, had kept the secret from Alison and her sister.
In her early 30s, engaged to be married to her longtime boyfriend but struggling with a crippling depression, Alison slowly but doggedly began to research and uncover her Jewish heritage. Eventually she came to realize that her true path forward was to reclaim her history and indentity as a Jew. But even then, one seemingly insurmountable problem remained: her mother wasn't Jewish, so technically Alison wasn't either. In this by times raw, by times sublime memoir, Alison recounts her struggle with the meaning of her faith, her journey to convert to Judaism, her battle with depression, and her path towards facing and accepting the past and embracing the future—including starting a new family of her own. This is her unusual and gripping story, told in crystalline prose and with all the nuance and drama of a novel, but illuminated with heartbreaking insight into the very real lives of the dead, and hard-won hope for the lives of all those who carry on after.
The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times, by Barbara Taylor
About the book: The Last Asylum begins with Barbara Taylor's visit to the innocuously named Princess Park Manor in Friern Barnet, North London—a picture of luxury and repose. But this is the former site of one of England's most infamous lunatic asylums, the Middlesex County Pauper Lunatic Aslyum at Colney Hatch. At its peak this asylum housed nearly 3000 patients—among them, in the 1980s, Barbara Taylor herself.
The Last Asylum is Taylor's powerful account of her battle with mental illness, set inside the wider story of the end of the UK asylum system.
The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, by Teresa Toten
About the book: When Adam meets Robyn at a support group for kids coping with obsessive-compulsive disorder, he is drawn to her almost before he can take a breath. He's determined to protect and defend her—to play Batman to her Robyn—whatever the cost. But when you're 14 and the everyday problems of dealing with divorced parents and step-siblings are supplemented by the challenges of OCD, it's hard to imagine yourself falling in love. How can you have a "normal" relationship when your life is so fraught with problems? And that's not even to mention the small matter of those threatening letters Adam's mother has started to receive... Teresa Toten sets some tough and topical issues against the backdrop of a traditional whodunit in this engaging new novel that readers will find hard to put down.
Changing My Mind, by Margaret Trudeau
About the book: In this deeply moving memoir, Margaret Trudeau speaks with candour and insight about the illness that silently shaped her life. Plagued since childhood by extreme moods, Margaret was ill-prepared for the high-profile role into which she was cast at age 22, as Canada’s youngest first lady.
Away from the cameras and the public appearances, and increasingly isolated at 24 Sussex Drive, Margaret struggled with a growing depression offset by bouts of mania. Gradually, though, a fragile stability took hold, but the tragic death of Michel Trudeau, closely followed by Pierre Trudeau’s own passing, caused her to spiral into suicidal depression. Finally accepting the diagnosis of bipolar, she sought medical treatment.
Under intense international scrutiny, Margaret Trudeau has survived remarkable highs and devastating lows. Since regaining control of her life, she has brought her formidable passion to helping others, be they Canadians suffering from mental illness or families living without access to water half a world away. A recipient of the Society of Biological Psychiatry Humanitarian Award, she now offers her journey of recovery, acceptance and hope, and generously shares with us many previously unreleased photos, in one of the most important memoirs to come out of this country
After a decade at the helm of Chatelaine, Rona Maynard stepped down to write the memoir her readers had been asking for. She speaks across the country on mental health and leads a memoir workshop in which she guides beginning writers to the heart of the stories that shaped their lives.
Rona’s personal honours include a National Champion of Mental Health Award from the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health, a Woman of Distinction Award from the YWCA of Metropolitan Toronto, a Woman of Action Award from the Israel Cancer Research Fund and a Media Award from the Canadian Nurses Association.