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Conversation about mental health should be year-round, advocates say

Marli Brown was in kindergarten when the first signs of anxiety emerged: she lost most of her hair and was gripped by panic attacks that led to seizures and knocked her out cold.

In high school, she binge drank and banged her head against a wall in private while maintaining a perfect facade as an honour roll student, student council president and yearbook editor.

"I learned that I had to keep that other part quiet because it was considered to be weird," said Brown, now 36 and living in rural Manitoba.

"It was almost like a double life."

The secrecy lasted much of Brown's adult life as she sought help for mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and postpartum depression, including a stint on a psychiatric unit during university.

She told family and close friends about seven years ago, but it was only last year that Brown, a social worker and mother of three, felt comfortable going public with her struggle.

The fact that mental health was increasingly being discussed openly — if largely through awareness-raising campaigns — made it much easier to come clean, she said.

"You'd see the commercials, you'd hear people talking about it, and that was a way that I could get a sense of are people OK with this or not OK with this?" said Brown.

Roughly one in five Canadians experience mental illness and efforts to eliminate the lingering stigma have multiplied over the years, with several days and weeks devoted to the cause.

One of the most high-profile events, Bell Let's Talk Day, marks its fourth year Tuesday. The campaign encourages people to talk about mental health issues and raises money for mental health programs: for each text sent from a Bell phone that day, the company donates five cents.

The telecommunications giant committed to investing $50 million in mental health programs over five years, and while it has already surpassed its target by $12 million, a spokeswoman said no decision has been made about possibly extending the campaign beyond next year's deadline.

There is no doubt such efforts spur conversations on what's traditionally been a taboo topic, said Peter Coleridge, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association, which organizes the annual Mental Health Week in May.

"It opens up opportunities for people to have a dialogue about mental health, mental health issues in workplaces," Coleridge said.

On social media and on the job, "people are saying, 'Yeah, it provided me with an opportunity to have that discussion, and without that campaign or that trigger on that day, I may not have felt comfortable talking to my coworker or my friend about the fact that I was struggling a little bit,'" he said.

Arthur Gallant, 24, said events such as Let's Talk Day provide a much needed platform for mental health advocates like him.

The Burlington, Ont., resident has dealt with mental illness all his life — his mother struggled with it, and he himself was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at 13.

Long shunned by his peers and feeling increasingly isolated, Gallant nonetheless decided to speak publicly about his experience through various initiatives and eventually signed on with Let's Talk Day.

"Do I think it necessarily decreases the stigma? I think it's hard to measure," he said.

But Canadians would be worse off without these kinds of efforts to regularly remind them that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, he said.

He recalled a recent encounter with a colleague at a new job, in which she casually mentioned having forgotten to take her anxiety medication that day.

"For her not to know me and sort of put that out there, it makes it seem like people just have no shame anymore and that's kind of cool," Gallant said.

Still, it's what happens in between these campaigns that matters most, he said.

The positive effect "will only last if people want it to last," he said, and it's up to everyone to keep it on the radar year-round.

Brown agrees.

"This doesn't go away," she said. "For people who are affected by mental illness and mental health... it never does end."

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