Let’s talk mental health

To say that mental health struggles were unexpected for Penny Osborne would be an understatement.

“I think I’m a good example of how mental illness just doesn’t care,” she explains. “And I think people always think that it’s not going to happen to them, that you need to have something intrinsically wrong – but you really don’t.”

Penny, who is now 62, spent 22 years as a registered nurse before moving on to become a registered massage therapist at a holistic health care centre that she opened and ran herself. The centre was so successful that Penny’s services were being booked six months in advance.

“And I was healthy,” she continued. “I didn’t drink, I’ve never smoked, I didn’t drink coffee, I exercised – I was your poster-kid for being well. And I (was) well emotionally – I was married and had two children. And when I decided to retire in 2014, I just decided I’d been looking after people my whole life and I decided it was time to stop.”

It should have been idyllic from there. They had their dream house, a happy family, and she was finally taking time off to enjoy her life and care for herself. So, in November she retired, and she and her husband decided that instead of heading to Florida, where they had an RV, they’d head out to California.

That’s when things went into a tailspin.

“I got quite sick,” she explained. The pair decided to pack up and head back to Florida where she could be comfortable in their RV– a house she calls her second home.

“But I just got sicker. I had pneumonia, then H1N1, and when I had almost recovered from that I got the norovirus, and then I got pneumonia again.”

For three months Penny watched her weight drop as she struggled to get better. But nothing seemed to be working, and her emotional state started going downhill.

“I started having panic attacks, and they were horrible,” she said, her frustration evident. “They filled me with doubt. And I just kept thinking ‘I can get over this!’”

But instead she felt herself start sliding lower and lower.

“I was extremely depressed and anxious, and I was very suicidal,” she continued. “It just got to the point where all I could think about was getting out – I thought I can’t live like this. And one morning my husband was going to work and he said to me ‘promise me you won’t hurt yourself,’ and I looked at him and said ‘I can’t promise you that anymore.’”

It was there that Penny decided that, despite the fact that she was a holistic medicine practitioner, it was time to seek some help. Even if that meant medication.

And while it was a difficult transition, Penny returned home and was admitted to the Mental Health Day Treatment program at Queensway Carleton Hospital.

“(The) program provides a supportive group environment where participants are encouraged to focus on their strengths, set goals and take responsibility for their wellness,” explains Julie Van Der Meulen, an Occupational Therapist in the Day Treatment Program. “The program runs 4 days a week for 7 weeks, and the team includes an occupational therapist, registered nurse, social worker and recreation therapist.”

It’s not easy for a patient to get to the point Penny had – acknowledging that she had reached a point where she could no longer deal with her mental illness alone. And even when they do ask for help, it can be a long process to get into a program like the one at QCH.

“Some individuals think asking for help is a sign of weakness when it actually takes great courage and self-awareness,” Julie stressed.

“(And) it is an unfortunate reality that there is just not enough accessible, affordable quality mental health care services to meet the needs of individuals living with mental health issues.  The wait times can be quite long for geared-to-income (or) OHIP covered services and long-term follow-up is very difficult to obtain.”

That need for quality care is a driving force behind the significant renovations that are taking place in the mental health unit, which includes an improved therapeutic environment and additional space to help QCH provide additional services to local patients.

And those services may have saved Penny.

“I didn’t want to go,” Penny said. “But I honestly think everyone should take that program. It’s a wonderful thing to have for people who are suffering from mental health issues, but I think everyone can benefit from that program because it teaches you life skills.”

It wasn’t an overnight fix though. Penny suffered from false starts, self-doubt, and the fear that nothing was going to take the edge off her overwhelming anxiety. But eventually she was placed on a low dose of an antidepressant, and one morning she woke up and the anxiety wasn’t there.

And now that she has graduated from the program, Penny has found a way to turn her experience into a way to raise awareness for mental health, and give back to the community that supported her.

While in the program, one of the coping mechanisms she adopted between hospitalizations was yoga. It became part of her daily routine to the point where, even on the worst of days, she’d be at her morning class.

Once she’d graduated from the program, she became a yoga instructor and opened a studio that focuses on clients with mental health issues, cancer patients, and people who weren’t comfortable with the average yoga class.

“It’s been a long road back to this degree of wellness,” Penny stressed. “And that whole journey has made me so aware and so empathetic for those who suffer from this illness – It’s a very difficult way to learn about yourself.

“(And) it takes so much longer than you expect to get better – so don’t give up.”

Hopes Rising is a $5 million campaign to enhance and improve mental healthcare for a rapidly growing number of adults and families. It is a campaign inspired by the hopes of families throughout our community to enhance acute mental health services at QCH for adults of all ages. Funds raised will help deliver a renovated Mental Health Unit at QCH that supports hope, healing and recovery, and improved emergency care for people in the midst of a mental health crisis. To learn more or to make a donation visit: www.hopesrising.ca.

If you, or someone you know, needs access to support you can visit www.ementalhealth.ca and www.211ontario.ca (or call 211) for resources on finding mental health services. If you are experiencing a crisis situation, please call the Mental Health Crisis Line (1-866-996-0991).