Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW) is an annual national public education campaign designed to help open the eyes of Canadians to the reality of mental illness. One of MIAW’s major initiatives is the Faces of Mental Illness campaign, a national outreach campaign featuring the stories of Canadians living in recovery from mental illness. In recognition of #MIAW2016, Thomas Telfer, suicide prevention and mental health advocate shares his story.
Thomas Telfer’s first encounter with mental illness occurred when he was a young lawyer. Not long after he had been 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.
After the consultation, his doctor concluded that he was likely dealing with depression and recommended medication. Thomas recalls leaving abruptly, announcing that it wasn’t true.
“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 that people at work would find out. Despite his efforts, a good friend tracked Thomas down, and went to see him in hospital. His friend told Thomas that although he hadn’t experienced mental illness personally, he understood that mental illness was not something you get over by trying harder.
When Thomas was hospitalized for depression recently, 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 is among a group of people who share their experience in the Zero Suicide Initiative video.
Thomas is a survivor of two suicide attempts. Nowadays 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 that 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 will be rolling out in phases across St. Joseph’s. The initiative will begin at 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 to provide them with the help and protection they so desperately need.”
He’s also joined the Zero Suicide Implementation Advisory Committee, as well as one of the Committee’s Working Groups, in order to support it from an outpatient perspective.
Katerina Barton is St. Joseph’s Project Lead for Zero Suicide and its implementation committee. She says that the purpose of the Zero Suicide Implementation Advisory Committee is to promote engagement between senior leadership, administrative staff, front line mental health care workers, and patients and families.
“The patient and families' perspectives are vital to the project,” says Katerina. “They will help inform some very important decisions about the implementation and policies being developed."
“I hope to make a difference by sharing my experience and participating in the Zero Suicide Initiative,” says Thomas.