‘Mental Illness is the Same as any Chronic Illness’

Michelle wants the perception of mental illness to change.

She wants the judging to stop. She wants the blaming to stop. She wants both the language and conversation to change.

“People just don’t get it,” she says.

Michelle has spent years assisting her daughter, Nichole, through the mental health care system. Diagnosed with anxiety and depression, Nichole first required care at the age of two. Her daughter is now 23 and the amount of stigma encountered by the family throughout Nichole’s recovery journey is immeasurable.

“Mental illness is the same as any chronic illness,” says Michelle. “They need to learn how to cope, the families need to know how to help them cope, and they need compassion.”

Throughout her daughter’s journey, Michelle says she faced great challenges because of the behavioural symptoms of her daughter’s mental illness.

“When a child has a physical illness people just accept it,” says the Pickering resident. “With mental illness they try to assign blame.”

It was stigma that played a role in making Michelle, as a caregiver, feel isolated and alone as she tried to navigate the mental health system for her daughter. That changed, however, when Nichole came to Ontario Shores through the Prompt Care Clinic.

While her daughter began treatment, Michelle began a journey of her own.

In all the years she was assisting her daughter, Michelle had never been in a position to receive the support she needed as a caregiver.

Through Ontario Shores’ Family Resource Centre (FRC) Michelle participated in the Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) for Families program, which empowers and supports people caring for a loved one with mental illness.  The structured group program encourages participants to assume greater responsibility for their health and well-being.

“I had never had that type of community support before,” says Michelle. “Families need that affirmation. We need the skills and strategy to be able to help our loved ones.”

Michelle, who is now a member of Ontario Shores’ Family Council, valued the opportunity to be able to connect with other parents and caregivers.

“We might have loved ones with different illnesses, but there is a common understanding we all share,” she says. “The support of a community is an invaluable tool.”

While her daughter is progressing in her recovery, Michelle is focused on giving back. She volunteers at the FRC, which is a dedicated, therapeutic space for families to share experiences, access resources and connect with other families for support and encouragement. 

“The Family Resource Centre is my safe haven,” says Michelle who often meets Nichole there following her outpatient appointments. “It’s important for us to be there for each other and it’s important for us to reach out and offer support to others.”