This essay deals with death, substance abuse, and mental illness; please only continue to read if you feel it’s healthy for you to do so.
On June 18, I turn 30. By June 30, I will be older than my friend, Emma, ever got to be.
Emma (whose name I’ve changed here for the sake of her loved ones’ privacy) crash-landed into my life when I was in the eighth grade. She was a year older than me, and my Mom had just acquired her as a piano student. “She’s sweet and hilarious — you should get to know her!”
Emma also danced at my studio, and I had just moved into her age group. We became fast friends, and we grew even closer when I joined her in high school. We traveled together, acted in plays together, did every piano duet together and caused all sorts of PG-rated trouble in between. We stayed close throughout and beyond high school (for a fashion, we even dated two guys who were roommates) and our friend group stayed tight into our twenties. Personal issues drove her away from the group in the latter half of that decade, but we always maintained our affection and a bit of contact.
Emma was everything you’d say about a friend who died too young — full of life, bright, kinder to everyone than she was to herself, creative but unmotivated, funnier than any of us thought was humanly possible. She went through a million phases — granola bohemian yoga chick one day, marathoner with emerging calf muscles the next.
One Sunday in November, I was making cashew cheese sauce when I got a call from my ex out of the blue. Emma had died the night before. I still remember the frenzy of my husband emerging from the bedroom, wondering if he should hold me as I sobbed or stir the cheese sauce to keep it from burning (somehow, he did both). I remember my dining room crumbling around me as I repeated over and over, “I thought she was getting better.”
There were a lot of tragic aspects of Emma’s death: the fact that it happened at all, the fact that it happened less than two weeks after her 30th birthday, the fact that I’d barely spoken to her in two years out of what I will admit was fear of too much drama. (I was re-traumatized two weeks later when I finally had the courage to search my messages from her and saw that my last message from her was to say that she missed me like crazy and we should try to get together.) But I also struggled with the stigma around her death. Telling people I’d lost a friend recently was sympathetic. But could I risk the admission given the inevitable question of how she died? “Was she sick?” “Well, sort of.”
Emma had died of a drug overdose after years of struggle and occasional triumph. She lived with mental illness, for which she had sought help numerous times, and she had been putting in the work. I don’t believe she died because she wasn’t strong enough. It’s just that with addiction and mental illness, the tools most people are even able to access are the equivalent of bringing a spork to a knife fight – I know from my own experience with mental health and access to care.
After the funeral, where my friends and I grieved as one, I allowed the shock and trauma to take its course, and I knew that soon I’d be able to parse this out healthily. Then, weeks later, my incredible and resilient Grandpa died, resulting in a drawn-out, overlapping and utterly chaotic grieving process.
It’s only now, six months later, that I am able to look outside the individually tragic nature of Emma’s death. As summer entrenches my city, as our sitting provincial government wages a war against safe injection sites, and as mental healthcare continues to bounce like the half-deflated political football it is, I’ve asked myself — how does the world foster and enable lives like Emma’s? What are the barriers that separated Emma’s life from a life like mine — and what were the factors preventing me from becoming someone like Emma?
I, too, live with mental illness, although it’s less severe. My issues with anxiety have been manageable enough that I’ve been allowed to indulge my inner coward and only take an “on and off” approach to therapy and counseling and waffle on the idea of medication.
Like many young working professionals, I have access to mental health counseling on paper, but it’s still harder to work out in the practical sense. My plan covers a finite number of approved practitioners in my area for a finite number of hours. I have the financial privileges of being married to someone with benefits, but that’s also finite — combined, I still can’t necessarily attend therapy on what most people would call a “regular” basis without paying out of pocket. And there’s no such thing as paying “a little bit” for therapy, since pretty much any session goes into the hundreds of dollars.
And, like many working in a post-recession era, I work on an under-staffed team (when I came back from my Grandpa’s funeral, I found myself one writer down and doing the job of two for four months). No one would have ever told me outright that I couldn’t take part of an afternoon off to see a therapist, but I knew that it would throw a real wrench in our gears.
“You need help, there’s no shame in that” is what’s said out loud, but “it’s going to make things difficult” is the subtext. And that’s a microcosm for most mental health messaging these days. “Erase the stigma.” “Take care of your mental health the way you take care of your dental health.” But when it comes to the people with the power to help that happen — those in the C-suite, community leaders and politicians — they shrug. “Tools? What tools?”
At times, the lack of flexibility to address my mental health issues without derailing my work and personal life weighs on me, and I’m someone who has a job, benefits, a spouse, and issues that can go untreated with no major impact on my life. (Emma, too, had the financial support and resources to even have access treatment such as in-patient programs, which many aren’t lucky enough to do.)
But imagine if I worked in fast food, if I were still a student, if I had no job. Imagine if I had to choose between checking into an inpatient program and keeping my job. Even if I were simply at my last job, where I made a decent salary, my benefits came in the form of a “health spending account” — i.e. a finite amount of money. Imagine the tragedy of getting a diagnosis and prescription only to find out you can’t afford that prescription. Now imagine the added insult when brands appropriate the concept of “self-care,” when friends well-meaningly recommend bath bombs and yoga for stress management. (And I do believe that kind of self-care has its place, but it’s situations like this that separate run-of-the-mill, everyday mental health treatment from actual mental illness treatments. Meditation and gratitude journals are flossing, but therapy is a root canal — and no one can floss away the need for a root canal.)
In Canada, one of our biggest campaigns for mental health assistance is Bell Let’s Talk in January. This past year, Bell, a vertically integrated telecommunications and media company, raised $9 million CAD ($6.7 million USD) in community funds grants — $3.53 million CAD ($2.6 million USD) for children and youth grants, $1.5 million CAD ($1.1 million USD) for Indigenous communities. The campaign has made some improvements in terms of intersectionality; years ago, it focused mainly on mood disorders and featured largely white, affluent spokespeople. It still taps the same well-known celebrities for the big blitzes, like comedian Howie Mandel and cyclist Clara Hughes, but recently, it has shared more stories from everyday people with more stigmatized mental illnesses, like personality disorders and addiction. It’s also positioned the stories of more diverse people (in terms of race, occupation, economic background and more) on the same pages as celebrities like Mandel and Hughes, signaling that their stories are equally important. In recent years, it has also added support for Indigenous communities, where many have identified an epidemic in youth suicides. There’s still plenty of criticism for the campaign and what many call a simplification of mental health, but it’s at least been heartening to see changes made, even if they’re gradual.
However, in the end, that $9 million has been a drop in the bucket, because organizations like CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) still require outside donations and funding. Part-time and low-income workers still don’t have the same access to mental health services as people like me. According to CAMH, Canadians in the lowest income bracket are three to four times more likely to report poor to fair mental health than those in the highest income bracket. Mental illness occurs within the homeless population at a rate of 23 to 67%. All the while, too many still treat addiction as separate from mental illness; the same Ontario MPPs (Member of Provincial Parliament) who Tweeted that they wanted to “overcome the stigma” around mental illness also voted to restrict safe injection sites in key urban areas.
As a journalist who specifically reports on the marketing industry, I’ve always been cynical about corporate mental health awareness. But I no longer see this as just an “issue.” It’s a full-on crisis.
Drug use is still treated as a criminal issue more than a health problem. And, according to CAMH, at least 20% of people with a mental illness have a co-occurring substance abuse problem, and people with substance abuse problems are three times more likely to have a mental illness. In Canada, people of color are overrepresented in our criminal justice system, but are underrepresented in diversionary programs, such as Ontario’s mental health court (which is offered to people who commit certain infractions while suffering mental health episodes).
In our day-to-day life, we also don’t often realize the way we enable and brush off addictive behaviours, especially in women. The National Institute on Drug Abuse finds that women are just as likely to develop substance abuse problems with illicit drugs and alcohol. Women also may be more susceptible to cocaine and methamphetamine use. From a pop culture standpoint, everything from “Mommy Needs Wine” culture to collegiate binge-drinking seems to be brushed off as normal, or even passed off as an empowering form of female rebellion against the expectation that we stay demure and sweet. While it’s not fair to put something as complex as addiction and recovery on the backs of individuals, those of us who do have healthy relationships with alcohol and drugs need to still be keenly aware of the ways our society pushes us toward partying and substance abuse — even the legal kind. The fact that your workplace can’t seem to have a company get-together without issuing everyone three drink tickets may not be a trigger for you, but you might want to be aware of the behaviors of your peers.
And so here I am, staring 30 in the face and determined not to become a statistic, and trying to figure out how to retroactively make the world better for my friend who did become one. Those who have tried to make me feel better by saying her death couldn’t have been prevented have only been half-correct — I refuse to accept that death from addiction and mental illness is an inevitability, even if it’s damn hard for me, as an individual, to make sure that deaths like Emma’s become easier to prevent.
But I need help to do that, and I need help from people and bodies more powerful than me. I need the corporations who challenge me to take care of my mental health the way I take care of my dental health to fund their employees’ therapy to the same proportion that they fund dental visits. I need political parties who give themselves five-month breaks from the legislature to reinstate policies that would allow part-time workers the same access to paid time off as their full-time, salaried equivalents. I need municipal governments who evict and destroy tent cities to tell me where those people are going to go, especially if they’ve just voted against more affordable housing and more sheltered spaces. I need local media to stop running puffy real estate pieces glorying gentrification while treating the displaced people with mental illnesses as props for comic tragedy.
I need the people reading this to look at the people at the “bottom” of society and check their empathy. I need us to be open to having those hard conversations with friends who get trashed at every company party, no matter how much “emotional labor” it requires from us. I need us to not support pop-up shops and restaurants that come at the expense of homeless people’s sleeping spaces.
And I need us to keep talking about it, not in the generic, puffy ad campaign that says “talk about it.” I need those of us who have the privilege to keep bringing our feedback up the chain at work. I need those of us who have access to their MPs, MPPs and local government representatives to talk to them about what our reality is. I need those of us who discover new food banks, free drop-in programs, and support groups to offer our time and resources to promote them.
Because we need help, and I refuse to believe that we are going to do it alone.
Bree Rody-Mantha is a full-time business journalist and part-time dance teacher based in Toronto. She covered Toronto City Hall during the Rob Ford era before transitioning to business journalism. Her areas of specialty include the influencer market, advertising, media buying, and technology. Follow her on Twitter.
Image via Unsplash