Hi! My name is Mike. I am a support worker for people with special needs. I also care for my four children. Three of my kids have special needs in mental health. We need help coping with anxiety conditions, bipolar disorder and other challenges. I personally have overcome bipolar disorder myself to have many successes in life.
I am also an artist. I write poetry, philosophy and music. I enjoy photography and cinema. I have always had a strong athletic interest too and I still take part in hiking, camping, swimming and sports with my family.
I knew I was different even back in elementary school. I was both creative and spiritual. In grade five I took an interest in guitar class and soon got my own guitar. My parents loved Rock and Roll, Motown music and even Disco. I learned to love it all too. I loved writing. In grade six I wrote a twenty-page love letter to a girl that I really liked and mailed it to her when she was on holidays across Canada for spring break. I also wrote a fifteen-page science-fiction story for grade seven Language Arts class that was well-received. By grade eight, I had an electric guitar and became much more interested in Hard Rock. I became part of the “Rocker” crowd. I grew out long hair and wore jeans and leather jackets. I started drinking alcohol. This got me in trouble. I had run-ins with the police and did some stupid things, like making myself really, really ill.
As a student I had close to straight A’s right through grade twelve, and into my second semester at University. That is when I began to lose focus and pay more attention to partying and experimenting with drugs. That is when I began to have serious episodes in bipolar disorder that could have killed me or others. No one knew how to react. Many still don’t.
People started to treat me like trouble and assumed that I was a bad student, up to no-good. That was not all true. I still aimed to be kind and promote wellness. I still got straight A’s. Often stigma got the best of me.
Because of the clothes that I was wearing and my long hair, some groups of people disrespected me, including people that should know better. We are all people, and we all deserve respect. Every one of us.
As a “rocker,” I was judged almost by my own choice with a stigma. I was getting in trouble. My friends were getting in trouble. In some ways I chose to be known as trouble even though I really wasn’t…. Well at least: not to begin with.
I was never mean, but I started to live like a rock-n -roller. That’s not all good. I could have cost lives or lost my own life more than once. Difficulties in focus landed me in motor vehicle accidents. Street drugs caused me to get in other dangerous situations. Today with Fentanyl, the drugs themselves are much more likely to kill you. I did not actually get into drugs other than marijuana. On one occasion when I tried another drug, I ended up smashing a guitar over a drum-set at a party, and wound up in hospital with my reputation permanently damaged. I am flat out lucky to be alive. I stay away from hard drugs.
Meanwhile, the stigma from those episodes has had a lasting dramatic effect, even to today, over twenty-five years later. If I showed poor discretion in communications, it was at times my personality or my condition. I did not hurt other people as much as I hurt myself. Typically, I was more like a nuisance, but I did hurt a few people that I know of, with words in relationships, enough so that I still regret it to this day.
I was socially different, and this was deemed by stigma as unacceptable. I was oblivious to some customs and this was taken as disregard, like not knowing when to stop talking and not handling intimacy very well. Sometimes I got too attached or became scared when I got into relationships and then upset people with my actions. I became outcast from groups of friends. It wasn’t my intention to be oblivious to social norms, but partly due to drugs and alcohol, I became that way at times. My way of expressing myself and acting is also tied to behaviour that is associated with bipolar disorder.
Stigma made people want to exclude me, even though the behaviour was very rarely outright harmful; In fact, usually I was extra caring and artistic with lyrics in poetry or music, but people thought that this was too much. They thought I was weird, self-indulgent and not realistic. I was being me and being kind and outgoing, but it seems that I didn’t understand their rules and I acted out of place. People took offense.
It took me many years before I realized that I could defend myself, by speaking up and explaining situations, and by being calm and patient. By the time I realized this, it was too late for many of the relationships and friends that I had lost during those periods in my youth.
Stigma would build around misunderstood details of incidents and problems and become blown out of proportion. There was nothing I could easily do about it once episodes happened, and soon I had the reputation of having mental illness and being trouble.
I achieved my psychology major in my bachelor’s from Simon Fraser University in 1997. I completed my degree while I was fighting off dangerous manic episodes and hospitalizations. It was the worst time for my illness. I still learned a lot from my school, but I made sure to also learn a lot from my experience. Because of my illness my grades in finishing my degree were not seen as excellent at the time. My first job with my degree was bagging groceries and collecting shopping carts at a grocery store.
In 2000, I got married and started a family. I have not had a severe struggle with bipolar disorder since my last clinical episode in 2001. My battle has been more about the stigma since then. In order to support my wife and baby, I started my electrical apprenticeship within the first few months out of hospital. My recovery included five years of hard, dirty, and dangerous work in construction. I became a licensed Red Seal electrician by 2007. I soon became a successful foreman in charge of projects and crews of workers.
Starting in 2005, I spent close to ten years as a baseball coach for my two sons. We won nine championships! I also have helped my two stepdaughters with school and at home over the last seven years. The youngest kids are still in grade school, grades seven and twelve. Many members of our family have struggled with mental health concerns.
My oldest son, my two stepdaughters and myself have conditions that require special attention and treatment according to medical and educational professionals. Some of us require medication or special help from doctors, teachers, and caregivers, to take care of ourselves best. We also have challenges in social interactions that can be caused by how we express ourselves and how we behave differently sometimes. These challenges often come from the environment and social networks too. Others perceive us based on their experience with us, but also based on what others say, and based on stigma and stereotypes that come with our differences and diagnoses.
To this day, stigma makes it hard for me to know how to react. Sometimes I avoid situations where I might be stereotyped. This can have a negative impact on networking or community involvement. Sometimes I accidentally over-compensate, like by acting differently to counteract peoples’ discriminating stigma. Then, by trying to not look like trouble, I can end up causing the opposite affect and stick out like a sore thumb.
Self-stigma at times creates the likelihood of more social stigma from others and structural stigma from institutions. People expect problems if they notice that I, myself, expect problems or that I am acting nervous. This is one reason why it helps to be calm and optimistic or confident.
Still, at times I will say or do things to try to avoid stigma, but in doing so only confirm it. It is hard to know how to act sometimes.
Again, I will emphasize, this stigma still hurts me today, after I have been healthy for twenty years, just because of mistakes that I made back then, that are still connected to my behaviour, my diagnosis and how others view me today. The impact has mostly been around institutions, such as my effort to get back into university, to get support for my family in healthcare and I find a general lack of support in the workforce across three different industries including construction, support work and research. By being honest and confident I have still managed to find some progress in these areas. I have also come under fire for standing up for justice, such as against bullying and when others prevent fairness due to stigma.
Once I had made a few mistakes, it was hard to get away from them. I had to forgive myself too, but the truth is that these were mostly innocent occasions. I acted outside of social norms, and some people would not accept me in into their social circles again. They would not confront me, but they would also not take me seriously when I talked to them, even if I tried to apologize. In some cases, it was too late. I had lost credibility, even in the fight for justice. They would eventually just ghost me, as if it was my fault and leave me stuck in problems that stigma had caused. The part that was my fault was the over-indulgence in drugs and alcohol.
The social implications of substance abuse can be so awful, like losing many friends or hurting people or dying. With the lethal street drugs today, there is no way that I would ever take that risk.
For me, the stigma of mental illness was largely tied to the episodes that I had. My behaviour outside of the episodes, to some people, seems to confirm stigmatizing views. My personality can often be completely misjudged. My intent to share wellness and develop peace are often perceived suspiciously by people who continue to base expectations on stigma and stereotypes. Once people have a stereotype in their head, it can be hard to shake it. We need patience, effort and mutual respect to overcome stigma.
My life at times has been more counter-intuitive, which had led me to be misunderstood and mislabeled. I’m used to it, but it is still difficult.
Often, I couldn’t express myself the way I wanted to or approach people and be respected. Time constraints are still an issue. People have treated me as this stereotyped version of a troublemaker, according to stigma. Sometimes, in the real world, we just don’t get the chance to explain ourselves and dispel stigma, if we don’t get the right time and place. That’s why, in my opinion we always need to have an ear open for others and try to be willing to discuss mental health with others.
Sometimes my attitude was a problem. It was like I was “too cool” or too full of pride, to associate with a teacher or someone that wasn’t in my group, even if they offered help. Sometimes I was just scared or embarrassed. This is how I closed myself off from help, including from friends.
After the 1990’s, the strategies that I learned for mental health and to battle stigma, have worked for me. They have got me through with a happy home and great potential for the future. For stigma especially, I think we need to try to speak our mind when we get the chance, but not always push it if we don’t think it’s the right place, audience or if we don’t have enough time.
When I disclose my diagnosis, I make sure I have enough time to explain, share the positives and dispel negatives that don’t apply to me. I apologize for negatives that have affected people and explain the condition. We need to be confident in communications but also patient and kind. Some people still won’t get it. We have to be accepting; remain patient and forgiving of others, and ourselves.
I learned from my own battle with mental illness, in bipolar disorder, how to address concerns of stigma. I learned that a diagnosis can help you to get medical treatment, but that the stigma that is tied to the diagnosis can also cause stereotyping that hurts us socially and can even cause problems with treatment in healthcare. I have had to take much of this experience with stigma in stride in order to have success, partly just by being kind of tough about it. I try to make it better.
I also aim to endure situations or rough emotions when they come up and then improve on that. I have been my own best friend and that’s how I’ve made other best friends, by being kind to myself when I need to, even when others aren’t treating me that way. If I am not getting help and understanding from others, I always have myself to be aware of my own feelings and to care for myself.
With or without my diagnosis being identified, I have stigma, so I reach out. I protect myself and promote myself. I try to be prepared to handle different treatment from everyone and any situation. I aim to remain calm and optimistic and have empathy.
I continue to be involved in research on mental health after publishing a project as a co-author in 2016 with the University of British Columbia in the Department of Psychiatry. I have just become a part of the Family Research Advisory Panel with the UBC Faculty of Medicine. Having personally lived with a mental health diagnosis for close to thirty years, I truly appreciate the chance to understand and contribute to research and studies in academics and healthcare, especially how that relates to children, youth and families.
I am currently a support worker. I work with kids who need extra help in elementary schools. I have also worked with youth and adults with developmental disabilities and mental illness. I retired as an electrician and construction worker, mainly due to physical injury and finding opportunity in mental health research and support work.
Don’t let stigma get you down. Life is hard sometimes. That is a fact of life. Stories and kindness help. Empathy and optimism help.
Make good friends. My wife has been one of my best friends since the early 1990’s because we talk with honesty, care and humour.
For mental health, I always aim to maintain physical health by getting enough exercise, getting enough sleep, and having a nutritious diet. If I need help, I get in touch with healthcare and I always follow through with prescriptions. When I suffered the worst from my mood disorder, the strategy of calming myself became so important. Deep breathing and self-reassuring words have been most valuable in helping me to ground myself in stressful or surreal times. In my study with UBC, the focus on maintaining “Hope” is a key to mental health. I build my own hope with optimism. I learn to adapt by knowing that things will always work out, one way or another. Efforts in optimism help me to get past moods that could otherwise be awful or terrifying.
I set my hopes high to include everyone. If I show empathy for others to try to understand their feelings, it seems more likely that they will show empathy for me. Empathy is our ability and the work we do to understand how other people feel. We work with others best if we understand their needs. Some of us just hope for a cup of water, a meal, clothes, shelter and a bed. Others hope for some other cool things, maybe electronics or even vacations and cars. We may want more friends or more time with our friends. Sometimes to get through stigma and illness it just takes people from our social network to show empathy and engage on our needs.
We can always find hope. I make that clear to myself. I don’t let myself deny it. When I am feeling not well or if I am feeling stressed out, I look to what I am doing today. I look to find some moment of enjoyment or progress. I look to helpful memories and even just to feel glad when I can have thoughts to myself to think about things. I also look forward to success in tomorrow, whether that is a high score, a good grade or just some comfort and fun. For the benefit of everyone I aim to maintain Respect and Empathy for other people and their goals. In my life, for mental health and for my goals, I aim to be Calm and Optimistic.