Thomas Telfer’s first encounter with mental illness occurred when he was a young lawyer. Not long after being called to the Bar, he approached his family doctor and tried to explain that he was not “feeling well” but couldn’t put his finger on what could possibly be wrong.
His doctor concluded he was likely dealing with depression and recommended medication. Thomas recalls leaving abruptly, announcing that it wasn’t true.
“It’s one thing to share with people that you have struggled with depression, but quite another thing to say you have attempted to end your life.” —Thomas Telfer.
“I was in complete denial,” says Thomas. “I felt guilt and shame and associated mental illness with weakness. Unfortunately at the time, I believed society’s messages about it.”
For Thomas, his first depressive episode did not last long. Years later, as a professor at Western University, his depression returned in a more severe way. Thomas continued to believe the stigmatizing messages about mental illness, even when he was first admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
“I told my wife that no one could know and I didn’t want any visitors,” says Thomas.
He was terrified people at work would find out. Despite his efforts, a good friend tracked Thomas down and went to see him in hospital. Although the friend hadn’t experienced mental illness personally, he told Thomas it was not something you get over by trying harder.
When Thomas was recently hospitalized for depression, his attitude towards mental illness changed. He invited work colleagues to come and visit him in hospital. Now back at work, his recovery has been assisted by the tremendous support from family, friends and his Western colleagues.
Thomas Telfer is sharing his experience with mental illness to support the Zero Suicide initiative, which aims to make suicides in the health care system a ‘never event’.
Thomas is a survivor of two suicide attempts. He no longer wishes to hide from the stigma and would rather share his story openly to help others. He uses his platform as a professor to share his story and to give his students hope. Recently, he shared his story to group of London lawyers.
"It’s one thing to share with people that you have struggled with depression, but quite another thing to say you have attempted to end your life,” says Thomas.
His current family doctor was the first to share information about the Zero Suicide Initiative, which is rolling out in phases across St. Joseph’s Health Care London. The initiative is now underway at St. Joseph’s Parkwood Institute’s Mental Health Care Building in the Adult Ambulatory Mental Health Care Program.
“Zero Suicide is exactly the starting point we need for a discussion about suicide,” says Thomas. “It’s putting proper support in place for people who are struggling and provides them with the help and protection they so desperately need.”
Thomas has joined the Zero Suicide Implementation Advisory Committee and one of the committee’s working groups to support the initiative from an outpatient perspective. The purpose of the advisory committee is to promote engagement between senior leadership, administrative staff, front line mental health care workers, and patients and families, explains Katerina Barton, St. Joseph’s Project Lead for Zero Suicide and its implementation committee.
“The patient and families' perspectives are vital to the project,” she explains. “They will help inform some very important decisions about the implementation and policies being developed."
Thomas appreciates the opportunity.
“I hope to make a difference by sharing my experience and participating in the Zero Suicide Initiative.”
Zero Suicide – St. Joseph’s takes a leadership role in Canada
St. Joseph’s Health Care London has embarked on the leadership of Canada’s first Zero Suicide Initiative. The project aims to improve care and outcomes for individuals at risk of suicide and relies on a system-wide approach to close gaps in care rather than on the heroic efforts of individual mental health professionals.
The Zero Suicide initiative has a bold goal – to make suicides in the health care system a ‘never event’. In the health systems of United States and United Kingdom, the project has transformed suicide rates by wrapping care differently around the individual.
Phase one of this program at St. Joseph’s is being piloted within the Adult Ambulatory Mental Health Care Program at Parkwood Institute. As a result, every person admitted to adult outpatient mental health care receives a lifetime suicide risk assessment. St. Joseph’s is also educating outpatient clinical staff, ensuring they have the tools to support those experiencing thoughts of suicide.
Future phases will see Zero Suicide extend across St. Joseph’s inpatient mental health care programs and into the community. When fully implemented, London will be the first to have the gold standard for Canada’s commitment to suicide prevention.