Author Archives: mentalympian

Now Hear This

Last night I was extremely privileged to be one of eight storytellers for ABC Canberra’s ‘Now Hear This’ at The Street Theatre.  It was wonderful to hear the other people’s stories – they were simply fabulous. The venue was superb, the audience friendly, and ABC’s staff was completely supportive,  but I was way out of my comfort zone telling my story for the first time in a long time.  And it was a really important process for me.

Below is the story that I was rehearsing.  Once ABC’s video is added to its website, it will be evident that I didn’t stick to the plan.  Hey, I was nervous because I decided not to take the easy way out – by not simply relying upon my public interest legal case & naked walk in Toronto for my story – and it is the first time that I went on this particular path. While I stumbled and was far more nervous than usual, it was an absolutely fabulous growing experience for me, because it ended my ‘storyteller’s block’ of relying upon my acute psychosis episode.  I went deeper – and it was far more raw, and unpolished, and cathartic.  [Here is a link to ABC’s video of my story.]

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A CHANGE OF MIND

A decade ago, I wanted to hide the fact that I had experienced psychosis in Toronto and had been diagnosed with a severe mental illness.

However, I changed my mind.

Today, I am a social worker, employed to help people with mental health problems in Canberra.

My story of experiencing psychosis and recovery has been featured in The Canberra Times, is the subject of a short film by American E.C., and inspired a play written by Sue Murray.

Currently, I am developing Mentalympians, an online initiative to promote awareness of recovery. The term Mentalympians inspired by the important work done by Paralympians.

And recently, I was flattered by being acknowledged in the Senate by Tasmania’s Carol Brown.

Like everyone else, my life has been influenced by a number of factors, events, and changes.

CORPORATE INSIDER TO ACTIVIST

I was born in Montreal, and studied business before starting a corporate broadcasting career in Toronto in 1987.

During a stressful period in 1994, I started getting less and less sleep — while my energy increased.

Given my family history, I should have recognized these changes as early warning signs of a problem, but I did not.

My grandfather died in a psychiatric hospital in Montreal 6 months before I was born.

And my father and been diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a suicide attempt.

In short order, my symptoms became worse and I experienced my first life-altering episode of psychosis; a relatively mild one.

While suffering delusions of grandeur, I listened to Bob Marley’s song Get Up Stand Up approximately 30 times one September afternoon.

The following morning, I quit my job to reform the Canadian broadcasting system.

I had changed into an activist.

At first, my knowledge of the cable television industry and the federal broadcasting authority came in handy.

3 MPs joined me at an Ottawa press conference in March 1995. —We called on the Government to investigate a corporate welfare scheme, designed to unjustly enrich media companies selling cable-TV service.

While there were questions to the Prime Minister in Parliament, the Government dodged the issue — and journalists did not effectively cover the story.

However, I was determined to get a public inquiry into the broadcasting authority — and I put everything else in my life on hold.

The affair was stressful, but I pressed on — and on — and on.

DEPRESSION – DIAGNOSIS – PSYCHIATRIST

I had lost nearly 20 per cent of my body weight before collapsing into a severe depression in May 1996.

Less than a year earlier, a columnist at The Globe and Mail had publicly praised me for “charging head-long into battle with two of the most powerful opponents in the country” — but depression was a far bigger opponent than either media companies or the government agency.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder — and I felt deeply ashamed.

I remember being curled up in the fetal position one morning on  my bedroom floor, in pure misery — sobbing — certain that I was never going to work or enjoy life again.

Intense thoughts of suicide dominated my waking hours.

During that period, a psychiatrist told me that it was impossible for me to return to my role as an activist — because I had a severe mental illness, and stress is a trigger to relapse.


MAJOR PSYCHOSIS

However, as soon as there was a crack in the darkness, I returned to the issue, which helped raise my mood — but it was too soon — and I pushed myself too hard.

In October 1996, I appeared before the broadcasting authority at a public hearing, and urged commissioners to address the corporate welfare scheme in the public interest.

One month later, I experienced my second life-altering episode of psychosis.

I was transported to a Toronto psychiatric hospital by police — my life was shattered, my reputation destroyed and the people who loved me highly distressed.

Earlier that day, while looking at my dog Zach, a Black Labrador Retriever, I realized that DOG spelled backwards is GOD.  In my state of psychosis, this simple reality had a profound impact on me.

I went to my bank, took out some money, and started giving it away to people begging in downtown Toronto.

Once all of the money was gone, I gave a gentleman my jacket, despite the temperature being minus one.

Although I am not religious — I experienced a moment that I believed that I was connected directed to God.  I thought that God was willing to end poverty and suffering, IF I was willing to demonstrate my faith that all that I needed to change the world was the truth, BY walking the world naked for the rest of my life.

Of course, the deal was simply too good to reject.  But I didn’t get too far in my new pursuit.

RELATIONSHIP

Two weeks after my fashion faux pas, I was discharged from hospital — but I was a broken mess.

I wanted to disappear. So I did.  Spending time in the United States, Europe and Africa.

In 1998, I returned to Toronto for a trip to visit family and friends.

During that time, I bumped into an Australian woman at a friend’s party.

On our first date — a highly enjoyable dinner at a Toronto restaurant near Lake Ontario— I started thinking about when it would be appropriate to tell her about my circumstances.

I was pretty nervous that it might not go over very well — so, I opted to do it sooner rather than later, and told her my story over dessert and coffee on that first date.

It turned out that one of her friends had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder after suffering psychosis.

Gail and I have been together ever since.  And my life has been fundamentally changed by her love, friendship and support.

CANBERRA

I found a good Toronto psychiatrist, who introduced me to Mindfullness Meditation practice – but I was still struggling in Toronto — so Gail and I moved to Canberra for a fresh start in 2001.

A few months after relocating to Canberra, I saw a flyer by Mental Illness Education ACT, searching for volunteers to share their personal stories of mental illness to high school classes to reduce stigma and encourage early help-seeking behaviour.

The idea of using my experience to help other people really appealed to me — and I became a volunteer educator, a decision that played a vital role in my recovery.

I had a sense of belonging, and got to know and respect other people with mental health problems — which helped me accept myself.  And I was mentored by the organization’s executive officer, Margy Wldye-Brown.

As a result, I started developing a self-identity as a mental health advocate.

In 2004, the late Dr Grace Groom hired me to work one day a week at the Mental Health Council of Australia, which was also a major turning point for me, by increasing my confidence, self-esteem and circle of friends.

The following year, I started studying social work at ACU, completing my degree at the end of 2007.

ENDING – PSYCHIATRIST WRONG

In early 2008, two months after I had conducted a presentation on my recovery at the World Psychiatric International Congress, I made a trip to Canada to appear before the federal broadcasting authority, the first time since 1996.

I was granted 15 minutes for my presentation — I only required 3 minutes to say what I wanted to say on the public record.

My presentation resulted in questions in Parliament the following day about Canadians being over-charged by more than $1.2 billion dollars for cable television service since 1995.

Once again, the Government dodged the issue — and Canadian journalists totally dropped.

But I felt a degree of vindication nonetheless.

And this time, I didn’t put my life on hold to fight the system.  I left Canada to return home.

While the psychiatrist who told me that it was impossible for me to be an activist was wrong — I had been wrong to ignore his warnings of relapse from stress.

Not only had the result been devastating for me — the people closest to me had also paid a high emotional price.

A week after the questions in Parliament, I started my first job as a professional social worker — as a case manager at Community Youth Justice in Canberra.

I joined Woden Community Service in May 2009, to work in mental health in the Personal Helpers and Mentors Program.

Consequently, it is fair to say that I’ve gone through a number of changes in my life.

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Ending Self Stigma

I just returned from the Mental Health Services Conference in Adelaide, where I contributed to the delivery of a workshop on a course, Ending Self Stigma: (link).

The 9-week small group course is designed to help individuals with mental health problems to not internalize social stigma (self stigma), which can be extremely damaging and impair recovery and one’s quality of life.   Stigma researcher Amy C. Watson originally informed me of the course in 2009, and with the consent of the course’s creators, I co-facilitated two courses in 2010 through Woden Community Service.  As a result of the positive experience,  I am totally sold on the value of this particular course.

I could have used Ending Self Stigma a number of years ago, after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  It is my hope that this course will help other people with mental health problems in their own recovery process.

If you are interested in more information on this course, an article has recently been published on its pilot study:

Lucksted, A., Drapalski, A., Calmes, C., Forbes, C., DeForge, B., Boyd, J. (July, 2011). Ending Self Stigma: Pilot evaluation of a new intervention to reduce internalized stigma among people with mental illnesses.  Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 35(1):51-54.

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Signing Up To MentaNet

Mentalympians is an initiative to develop an online mental health ‘community channel’ to inspire hope by raising awareness of recovery; to help reduce social isolation and foster recovery by connecting individuals to their local services and support networks; and to progress social change by acting as a catalyst for collective activism (background of initiative).

While the Mental Health Council of Australia has welcomed Mentalympians as a “world first website [and] a creative approach to promoting awareness of recovery” (press release), it is still in its early stage of development.

The participation of people interested in mental health is needed for this initiative at the present time, specifically by signing up as members for the new Mentalympians social network (MentaNet).

As addressed below, the sign up process is simple and allows individuals who want to participate and remain anonymous to do so.  Furthermore, content posted on MentaNetwork is only available to registered members as an added level of privacy.

Although members have the option of adding assorted information to their accounts for other members to view, there are only 5 required steps to register as a member of MentaNet:

1. Enter your email address (which will be required for you to login);

2. Create a password (which will also be required for you to login);

3. Create a profile name (which is the only required piece of information that will be visible to other registered members, and still allows a member to maintain their anonymity if desired – examples of possible profile names: Australian or Mentalympian99);

4.  Confirm reading and accepting the terms of service, (which also includes the service’s privacy policy, respecting how your privacy is to be protected as a member); and

5. Enter your date of birth (this information will not be visible to other members and is only used to ensure eligibility, as minors are not eligible to be registered members).

The objective of MentaNet is to create an inclusive online environment where individuals with mental health issues, and others who are passionate about mental health, are able to participate in a safe, supportive and productive environment.  Unfortunately, social prejudice and discrimination still exists in relation to mental health issues, and some people might only be willing to participate in such a social network anonymously.  This is why members are not required to provide their names or other identifying information for the purpose of registration and participation.

At the same time, the social network is designed to provide registered members the option of posting appropriate information about themselves to other members, including their areas of interest in terms of mental health and links to their website, blog, Twitter account, and Facebook account if they wish to do so.

Also, when a member opts to enter either their first or full name on their account profile, other members will see this information and not their registered profile name.

It would be greatly appreciated if you are willing to support Mentalympians by becoming a member today (sign up) and notifying your family, friends and colleagues who might be interested in this initiative.

Anyone with queries or suggestions related to this social network are invited to contact me by email.

Thank you for your consideration.

Keith Mahar

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The 10-Minute ABC Dilemma

Yesterday I had an enjoyable meeting with two ABC producers at the broadcaster’s Canberra studio.  The meeting has helped motivate me to carefully consider how exactly to tell my personal story in the future, and to what end.  My dilemma is that the potential opportunity to be part of an exciting program on ABC has served to illustrate that I am at a crossroads in terms of what aspects of my lived experience to share in public.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the possibility of me talking about my personal story for 10 minutes to a theatre audience on September 14th, as part of ‘Now Hear This‘.  It remains to be seen whether or not I will be one of the 8 individuals selected for this event, which is to be recorded, placed on the broadcaster’s website and also played on radio.  I was honest with the journalists that I am not sure how exactly to tell my story in 10 minutes, or what elements to share with the audience members.

I was invited to ABC as a result of being a guest last year on Afternoons with Genevieve Jacobs, during which time I talked about experiencing psychosis in Toronto in 1996, while campaigning for an investigation into systemic corruption related to activities by Canadian media companies (including Rogers Communications and Shaw Communications) and commissioners at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) who had been appointed by the Rt Hon. Brian Mulroney.

By far, the simplest aspect for me to discuss in a 10 minute period is my life-altering episode of acute psychosis in Toronto during 1996 (as documented in ‘The Naked Advocate’, a short film produced by E.C. Warner for the 2006 Hope Awards).  I’ve publicly shared that experience nearly 150 times since 2002, primarily with classes of high school students as a volunteer educator with Mental Illness Education ACT.  When sharing that experience with students I am in their classroom for an hour and have the opportunity to establish a greater degree of credibility in terms of my mental health recovery.  Consequently, it serves as a useful means to an educational end; establishing the episodic nature of mental illness.  However, unless my bizarre behaviour during that episode of psychosis is properly put into context, sharing it will do little more than satisfy people’s voyeuristic curiosity of ‘madness’.

While that psychotic episode helped shape my life and warrants mentioning, I am far more interested in addressing rebuilding a satisfying and productive life in Australia after that event.  Such a focus holds far more potential to inspire hope of mental health recovery for other individuals who are presently going through a difficult time.  This objective requires addressing different factors and various accomplishments since 1996; such as being in a long-term relationship, immigrating to Australia, owning a home, conducting a presentation on my recovery at the World Psychiatric Association International Congress, completing a social work degree, returning to full-time employment as a peer support/mental health recovery worker in the Personal Helpers and Mentors Program, and developing an initiative to create online community channel Mentalympians (welcomed by the Mental Health Council of Australia as a world-first website in a press release).  Danielle Cronin adopted a similar approach in her Canberra Times article respecting my story in 2010, ‘Living a full life is simply mind over matter’.

I also would like to use my personal story to address the issue of suicide.  Specifically, the intense feelings of hopeless and despair that I experienced in 1996 during my first severe depression, which pushed me to the edge of ending my own life.  According to the World Health Organization, close to one million people commit suicide each year.  While the feelings of hopelessness that I was never going to enjoy life or work again were false, they were extremely convincing at the time. It is important for people suffering from an episode of depression to be aware that experiencing a false sense of hopelessness, while highly distressing, is a common symptom of the illness and not an accurate predictor of their future life.

In addition, the recent illegal phone-hacking scandal in Britain by News Corporation has increased global interest into the media and the relationship between media executives and politicians.  Consequently, it is also a wonderful time to address my independent campaign to address the outstanding case of corruption in Canada that was interrupted for several years by my poor mental health.  It is an unprecedented case of systemic corruption in the G20, a well-documented case that illuminates the perils of concentrated media ownership to democratic systems.  Trying to secure a public inquiry into the billion-dollar scandal has been an objective for a long time for a number of reasons, including to promote recovery .  It is my belief that for me to secure a public platform to address this issue, as a person diagnosed 15 years ago with a severe mental illness, would serve to raise public awareness of the reality of mental health recovery.

As addressed in correspondence last year by my legal counsel to Prime Minister Stephen Harper (correspondence, 31 May 2010), this case warrants attention and it is a matter of record that my presentation before a CRTC public hearing on 7 February 2008 resulted in questions in Parliament the following day; and a representative from the Harper government misled Parliament in response to a question about this sordid affair by a representative of the NDP.  Moreover, my legal counsel identified that this unjust corporate enrichment scheme first surfaced during the final month of Brian Mulroney’s tenure as prime minister.

As a result of the findings by the Oliphant Commission last year, Canadians are aware that Mr Mulroney acted unethically in relation to accepting envelopes stuffed with one-thousand-dollar bills from a German-Canadian arms dealer during 1993 and 1994 (final report, 31 May 2010); the same era that the CRTC case of corruption commenced.

Under the circumstances, a number of citizens might prepared to accept that a former Canadian broadcasting industry insider, one who has experienced acute psychosis, has identified a 17 year long case of systemic corruption implicating Canadian cabinet ministers, government officials and media company owners (chronology).

Psychosis, mental health recovery and this particular case of systemic corruption are all complex issues; and each has played a significant part in shaping my life, world view and plans for the future.  Clearly it is not possible for me to do justice to all three in a 10 minute presentation.  This is where my dilemma arises – what do I specifically address if selected by ABC for Now Hear This?

I’ve decided one thing that I will not do – I am not going to focus primarily on my psychotic episode at the expense of sharing my personal experience of recovery. While it would be the easy way out, it really would not serve a useful purpose on its own.

What are your thoughts?

keithmahar.com
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Media Illness, Mentalympians & Me

I made a presentation today at the ACT Australian Nursing Federation’s Biennial Conference in Canberra, entitled ‘Media Illness, Mentalympians & Me’.  The theme for the conference was ‘Conciliation & Compromise in Industrial Relations & Social Justice.

My presentation addressed that news and entertainment media’s negative and distorted depictions of mental illness act as a barrier to recovery in terms of producing both societal stigma and fostering internalized stigma (self stigma).

As addressed by Albert Bandura, self-efficacy is key to overcoming major obstacles in life. “Unless people believe they can produce desired effects by their actions, they have little incentive to undertake activities or to persevere in the face of difficulties” (2010).  Bandura’s also identified that the 2nd most effective method of increasing someone’s self-efficacy is through observation of positive social models.  Since media, in general, does not provide examples of people who have experienced mental health recovery, individuals struggling with mental illness do not believe that it is possible for their lives to improve.  Consequently, millions of people in the world suffer from a false sense of hopelessness.

Heather Stuart’s work on the portrayal of the negative and distorted image of mental illness and treatments by news and entertainment provides a damning picture of the effects of media. “The consequences of negative media images for people who have a mental illness are profound.  They impair self-esteem, help-seeking behaviours, medication adherence and overall recovery” (2006).

It is for these reasons that it is important that media initiatives are created that promote awareness of recovery, inspire hope, reduce internalized stigma and increase self-efficacy.  The purpose of mentalympians.org is to establish an online mental health community channel which will accomplish these goals, while also connecting individuals to local services and activities, and being a catalyst for activism to effectively lobby for adequate mental health funding and against discrimination.

As part of this initiative, a new mental health social network has just been created for anyone interested in mental health: mentalympians.org/community

I concluded my presentation by sharing my personal story of experiencing depression and psychosis in Canada, and my subsequent recovery in Australia (The Naked Advocate 2006) (Canberra Times 2010).

It was a wonderful audience and a truly enjoyable experience.  As I mentioned before finishing today, I still remember the kindness of the nursing staff at the Queen Street Hospital in Toronto in 1996 after I experienced a life-altering psychotic episode.

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Minister to re-establish national consumer peak body

Today I asked the inaugural Minister for Mental Health, the Hon Mark Butler, about the planned timing for re-establishing a national mental health consumer peak body for Australia.  This opportunity resulted from a Canberra forum held by the Minister from 1:30pm – 4:00pm, which was organized by the Mental Health Council of Australia.

Minister Butler acknowledged that mental health consumer advocate Janet Meagher AM had recently discussed this same issue with him and that as a result he was subsequently provided with a brief on the subject.  He referenced the related work completed by Craze Lateral Solutions, stressed that he recognizes the importance of re-establishing a peak national consumer body and assured the forum attendees that a decision on the exact model for such an organization was to be made.

I had to smile because it was Janet Meagher who had also put the bug in my ear about how long it was taking to re-establish the national mental health consumer peak.

Judy Bentley, a prominent mental health carer advocate, urged the Minister to also establish a peak carer body for mental health.  Minister Bulter stated that he understood the need for such a body but offered that its progress was not as advanced as the consumer peak because no scoping study had yet been undertaken on such an initiative.

Appropriately, Minister Butler was congratulated at the conclusion of the form for providing the chance for mental health consumers, carers and professionals to address what is working in mental health, identify gaps in service which warrant attention, and recommend key changes.

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Conference presentation on Mentalympians in Sydney

This past Thursday I flew to Sydney for the day to make a presentation on Mentalympians at The Mental Health Services Conference Inc. of Australia and New Zealand (TheMHS).  All went well and several audience members gave me their contact details to further discuss the online peer support initiative; which is always encouraging.

Below is the abstract for the presentation.

Paper Title:  Mentalympians – A Peer Support System for the 21st Century

Authors:  Sebastian Rosenberg & Keith Mahar

Mentalympians is a unique, 21st century peer support online platform that aims to stimulate discussion, collaboration and planning as well the design and development of a ‘community channel’, a multimedia website to be operated by individuals with experience of mental health problems through a global network of mental health consumer groups.  Mentalympian is a respectful and strength-based term which describes an individual who competes against stigma, prejudice and/or discrimination by voluntarily disclosing that he or she has personally experienced a mental health problem.  Mentalympians draws heavily on Bandura’s (1997) model of self-efficacy which asserts the role of individual volitional thought processes, particularly self-efficacy beliefs, on determining human action. It also draws on the considerable literature in relation to consumer self-stigma, particularly the work of Corrigan, Larson and Rusch (2009), whose research confirms the importance of interaction and group identity on boosting self-efficacy and recovery for marginalised groups.  This presentation will give participants all the training they need to become involved in Mentalympians.  Learning objectives: TheMHS participants will learn how to get involved in a world-first innovation in mental health consumer advocacy. Mentalympians is a new approach to fighting stigma and creating new opportunities for self-expression and recovery. Consumer self-efficacy and recovery are paramount in effecting quality mental health care.  This presentation will review the evidence which supports this and demonstrate a new and exciting internet platform designed specifically to enable consumers to fight self-stigma and build self-efficacy.  References: Bandura, A. (1997) Self-Efficacy: the Exercise of Control. New York: W.H. Freeman.  Corrigan, P., Larson, J. & Rϋsch, N. (2009) Self-stigma and the “why try” effect: impact on life goals and evidence-based practices.

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