Mental health, for me, like so many, is deeply personal.
Finding your mother face down in a pile of laundry, sobbing, is not an easy thing for a 12-year-old to understand. I thought to myself, “Why would an adult be crying for no apparent reason?” It just didn’t make sense at the time.
During this period, I noticed she had been sleeping a lot more than usual and I figured she was tired. What I did not realize was my mother, at the age of 40, was having a mental breakdown. My 12-year-old self was angry, confused and deeply saddened.
Why couldn’t my mom stop crying?
Why was she so tired all the time?
Was I making her unhappy?
It was a lot to unpack.
Over the next few years, my mother would be in and out of the hospital, working with doctors to understand what she was going through and getting much needed support.
During these years, our family dynamic changed.
We had lost our mother. My father was doing double duty, raising four children while working seven days a week to support us all.
Not much was known about mental health in the ’80s, and it certainly was not openly talked about. However, as I grew, so did my understanding of mental health.
I saw my mother’s strength as she worked hard to take care of her mental health while trying to raise four teenagers.
I now know the crippling power of depression, and how it made it so hard for my mother, like so many others, to get out of bed every day. Instead of blaming my mother, I grew to admire her courage to push forward. I began to admire my dad for not judging his wife, but rather understanding and being a true partner during this difficult time. They were a team, and I will always greatly admire them.
As I reflect on this experience nearly 40 years later, witnessing all of this has played a huge role in my life and the work I’m privileged to do in the housing and homelessness sector.
My mother was able to get the supports she needed, she had a family to help her throughout the journey, readily available access to health care, and she had a safe place to call home. For many across Canada, this is not the case.
Oftentimes, a lack of income and affordable housing is what stands in the way of being housed. For others, undiagnosed or unsupported mental health challenges play a major role.
In 2016, the Mental Health Commission of Canada reported between 25 and 50 per cent of individuals experiencing homelessness in Canada suffered from a mental illness. More critically, the National Learning Community on Youth Homelessness found in its 2014 National Needs Assessment that well over 50 per cent of the more than 1,000 youth experiencing homelessness reported a mental health issue.
While mental health might play a role in a person’s pathway to homelessness, it’s important to understand experiencing homelessness — the stigma, shame and isolation combined with the fear, exhaustion, and the near-constant grind of simply trying to survive — will oftentimes deteriorate an individual’s mental health over time.
This is why organizations like Blue Door partner with mental health experts at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) York Region and South Simcoe to make sure people have the supports needed to find and retain housing.
Under the brilliant leadership of CEO Rebecca Shields, CMHA York Region and South Simcoe has grown its services and supports to our most vulnerable, creating innovative programs like the Mobile Youth Walk-In Clinic, which offers people ages 12 to 25 a safe space to talk to a medical or mental health professional in a warm, welcoming and friendly environment.
It’s also why Blue Door values housing as a human right.
The stresses around finding affordable housing make it difficult for people to focus on their mental and physical health, and access the supports needed.
The quicker someone is connected to safe and supportive housing, the easier it is for them to focus on their overall health.
While we, as a society, have made great strides in the work around mental health, there is still so much to do.
Wait lists for services continue to grow, and coming out of the pandemic, the need for support is higher than ever.
Let’s continue to work together as a community to make sure everyone has a safe, supportive and affordable place to call home.
Michael Braithwaite is the CEO of Blue Door, host of the housing and homelessness podcast On the Way Home, board chair of the youth homelessness-focused organization A Way Home Canada, and a tireless advocate for people experiencing homelessness.