MENTAL ILLNESS ISN’T RARE; ONE IN FIVE CANADIANS WILL EXPERIENCE IT IN THEIR LIFETIME. WHAT IS RARE IS WHEN AN ENTREPRENEUR DECIDES TO ‘COME OUT’ AND TELL THE WORLD ABOUT IT.
This article represents Paul Vincent’s coming out. Not out of the closet, but “out of the fog”.
“It’s sort of like, ‘I’m gay—here I am’, or ‘Look at me, I have HIV/AIDS’.” Only Vincent, a 53-year-old entrepreneur living in St. John’s, Newfoundland, says he suffers from mental illness, specifically attention deficit disorder (ADD) and chronic depression. He sees the publicity of a magazine article as a way to confront the stigma associated with mental illness and as a means to “free” himself from the societal “shadows” where the illness is still swept. Most importantly, he wants to help other entrepreneurs and business people who may suffer from mental illness by forming a local support group.
“I was always a big fan of helping folks, especially in Vancouver where we lived for years and where AIDS was a big issue in society, but I honestly now understand the stigma. Boy do I understand the stigma, because all of a sudden I was in the same boat, and there are a lot more like me.”
Vincent is keen to name his support group “Rare Birds” after the 2001 Hollywood movie shot in Newfoundland, because he related to one of the “oddball” characters played by actor Andy Jones. The use of the word ‘rare’ may be deceiving. Mental illness is seen by some experts, at least in terms of anxiety disorder, as an “epidemic.”
According to figures provided by the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20 per cent of Canadians of all ages, cultures, education and income levels will experience a diagnosable mental illness in their lifetime. Research indicates major depression impacts eight per cent of adults; 12 per cent suffer mild to severe anxiety disorder; one per cent experience bipolar disorders; and another one per cent is affected by schizophrenia.
It is rare, however, for an entrepreneur or business person admits to the broader community that they have mental illness. “It’s only in recent times that we hear people like Margaret Trudeau come forward, but there are others,” says Vincent, listing Sir Winston Churchill, the late prime minister of Great Britain; Sir Richard Branson, an eccentric British billionaire industrialist; Axel Rose, lead singer of Guns N’ Roses; and actor Robin Williams.
“It’s time to put a face to this illness. We’re not dangerous people, we’re not manipulative people… there’s another side to us, a very positive side, and we can function in society quite well.”
In Vincent’s case, he’s the founder and chief proponent of Far Atlantic Yachts Inc., a company trying to establish a refit and repair yard in Newfoundland for luxury super yachts. To pull it off, Vincent must attract an international partner, and while interest has supposedly been expressed in a prospectus he prepared this past fall, he doesn’t fear that his “coming out” may jeopardize a potential deal.
“The idea stands on its own,” says Vincent. “If tomorrow I thought I was a roadblock to this happening… if I were at the table, I would leave the table—unequivocally. I challenge anybody to read this (prospectus) and say it doesn’t stand on its own merits. That’s success for me now.”
Still, Vincent’s poor mental health has cost him and his family dearly over the years.
In fact, the cost of mental illness to the Canadian economy is staggering: an estimated $51-billion a year, with 500,000 workers off sick everyday nationwide due to mental health problems. It’s generally acknowledged that mental health statistics are difficult to gather, primarily because of the stigma attached with coming forward. Companies, for example, are only lately starting to measure what’s been coined ‘presentism’, workers who show up for work but remain largely ineffective because of mental illness.
“Part of the problem is (that) mental illness is not visible,” says Lorne Zon, interim CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). “I mean, you phone in sick, right? You don’t phone in and say, ‘I’m not feeling mentally healthy today’.”
In Vincent’s case, he says his mental illness positively impacted his job performance by amplifying his determination. “I went around corners and over mountains and whatever I could do to get to the finish line.”
The severe downside is that he can’t handle money. More specifically, he says he can’t focus on accounting or paying basic bills like his cellphone. “You just say to yourself, ‘I can handle that next month when we sell our first item or when I get a new investor on board to help us out’,” says Vincent, “and you move along the path looking like a superstar because you’re able to move ahead, with nothing, and then all of a sudden you hit a wall. Then you go into a severe depression.”
Vincent is bluntly honest about his past, volunteering the information. He says he served time in jail in the early 1980s for fraud, and declared personal bankruptcy about 10 years ago. Within 10 days of his initial interview with Atlantic Business, Vincent says he was contacted by the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and told he’s being investigated for “two bounced cheques.”
Further, he says he was arrested the same week at his home on a separate charge for missing a court date. He says he was brought to the St. John’s lockup where he was fitted with leg irons and put in a cell. “I’d like to write every bank and say, ‘Here’s my picture guys. Do not take a cheque from me’,” says Vincent.
The obvious question is whether he’s using his mental illness as an excuse for criminal behaviour?
“The consequences of my actions are my responsibility,” answers Vincent, who doesn’t shy away from any query. He says he has no reservation about the magazine printing any detail of his life. “I’m freeing myself by telling you all this, and admitting to the wreckage my life has left behind,” he says. “My sister may look at this and never speak to me again, and that’s happened to me. I’ve had people walk away from me in a heartbeat. But that doesn’t help the cause; it doesn’t help change things.”
Vincent says he has the support of Far Atlantic’s other players, including Blake Cryderman, who’s listed in the prospectus as a member on the management board.
Cryderman, 64, recently retired from a management position with the College of the North Atlantic in St. John’s after a 36-year government career, and has had business dealings with Vincent for several years.
“Whether he has kidney disease, AIDS, liver illness or a mental illness, I don’t know if that matters to me,” says Cryderman. “I’m looking at what we have here (the prospectus). I don’t see that there’s any particular risk. My opinion is that it stands on its own. I have no problem with Paul coming out, so to speak.”
Then Cryderman makes a bold decision: he, too, announces he has mental illness, diagnosed as bipolar in 1994 after he checked himself into the Waterford Hospital in St. John’s. Cryderman’s close friends have known about his illness for years, along with the senior management at the College of the North Atlantic, and he doesn’t mind “coming out” himself to the broader community in a magazine article.
“I have no hesitation in coming out because the people who do count in my world know that I am (bipolar), and I think it would be productive for people to realize that you can have a mental illness and move forward in society.”
Cryderman says his illness actually helped him in his job by giving him elevated energy levels. “They all thought I was super hyperactive.” But Cryderman also had to tell the more than two-dozen employees who reported to him to be on the lookout for erratic behaviour. “They needed to know they didn’t have the problem, I had the problem.”
Indeed, the issue of mental illness dominated Newfoundland and Labrador headlines last fall with the disclosure of a controversial e-mail that questioned former Premier Danny Williams’ mental faculties. Written in February 2009 by journalist Craig Westcott, the controversial communiqué was released publicly by the premier’s office this past October (20 months later) after its author was appointed communications director for the Opposition Liberal party.
The public release of the message spurred a firestorm of condemnation in the form of letters to the editor and outrage on radio call-in shows.
“The problem of discrimination still remains and the stigma still hovers over this issue, even in the medical community, where colleagues who have a history of being seen by a psychiatrist or are treated for anxiety due to a physiological disorder could have their credibility and career destroyed forever,” wrote Judith Day of Fredericton, N.B., in a November letter to the editor of the St. John’s Telegram.
“The questioning of whether the premier has a mental illness is viewed as a personal insult to him,” wrote Ed Downey of Marystown, Newfoundland in another letter to the daily paper. “Fact is, many people with this affliction (bipolar), with proper medication and other supports, are leading productive lives and contributing greatly to our society.”
The upside of the e-mail is that it focused attention on the issue of mental illness. It also raised some interesting questions, including this one: If Westcott had questioned whether the premier had diabetes, would his comments have been given a second thought? The answer is probably no, even though both illnesses are caused by chemical irregularities—one involving the brain, the other involving the pancreas.
Vincent says he was “pissed off” by Westcott’s e-mail. “I felt I had been a fool,” he says, having built himself up for months to inform various business colleagues of his mental condition. “All it said to me was that the leaders in society, the people we respect, are playing the same game. They all acknowledge it (mental illness) and shake your hand… and then leave the room and forget about it.”
Vincent says a meeting with his banker is an apt case in point. He wanted to open a new business account, but knowing his weakness, he insisted he couldn’t be the signing authority. He eventually opened the account, but with so many restrictions it was practically useless. “The vibe I got from the whole experience was to forget to ask for a line of credit or loan. They’re not going to look at you.”
To Vincent, who grew up in Corner Brook, mental illness is deep-seeded in the Newfoundland psyche. The Waterford Hospital in St. John’s, for example, has treated the mentally ill since 1854 when it first opened. “People are scared to drive by the Waterford today because when they were kids they were told it’s the nut house,” he says. “I remember growing up and your parents would say, ‘Just pull up your socks, my son. Ah, there’s nothing wrong with you; you just need a good boot in the arse.’ This is the thing in Newfoundland, that it’s better not to talk about it, to ignore it or hide it.” As a result, 25 years passed before Vincent was diagnosed with mental illness. Years more flew by before he accepted the initial diagnosis and followed a course of treatment.
The tendency to ignore or hide mental illness isn’t unique to Newfoundland and Labrador, however, as indicated by a 2008 Canada-wide survey of attitudes and experiences towards mental health care. The results shined a “harsh, and frankly unflattering light” on Canadian attitudes, said Dr. Brian Day, then-president of the Canadian Medical Association, which commissioned the survey.
“In some ways, mental illness is the final frontier of socially-acceptable discrimination,” Day said. “Can you imagine the public uproar if mental health was replaced with race, gender or religion?”
The survey’s findings concluded: almost half of Canadians think people use the term mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour; one in four Canadians are fearful of being around people who suffer from serious mental illness; just half of Canadians would tell friends or coworkers that they have a family member suffering from a mental illness; and the majority of Canadians would be unlikely to hire a lawyer, child-care worker, financial advisor or family doctor with a mental illness.
The Canadian Mental Health Association sees the results as “absolutely frightening,” says Lorne Zon, pointing out that people cross the line from mental health to mental illness when they lose the ability to cope.
Zon says only one in three adults get the mental help they need. “When you look at children’s mental health the figure can get as bad as one in six actually getting the help they need, so there’s a huge capacity issue out there in terms of service provision. Unlike your arm where if you break it you get a cast, a little bit of physio and you’re fine … mental health is very complex.”
Dr. Ian Dowbiggin, a professor in the Department of History at the University of Prince Edward Island, has published extensively on the history of mental illness. He says life today is more stressful than ever due to the faster pace, as well as the media, which is constantly bombarding people with stories (terrorism, climate change, eco-disaster and finances, to name a few categories) that can trigger increased anxiety levels. In fact, there’s been a reported explosion of anxiety disorders in recent years, with reports of more than 3-million Canadians diagnosed. The World Health Organization goes so far as to say there’s a “global epidemic” of anxiety in the 21st century.
Though he agrees – to an extent – Dowbiggin wouldn’t go that far. “I think a lot of it is artificial, a lot of it is inflated,” he says, before quickly pointing out he’s not suggesting the emotional pain felt by people who report anxiety isn’t real. “If people are encouraged to adopt certain sick roles, then of course that’s going to create a certain amount of artificially inflated anxiety.”
An author of several books and articles on the history of medicine, including “High Anxieties: The Social Construction of Anxiety Disorders” published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Dowbiggin blames the rise in anxiety on what he calls an “illness breeding,” and “illness-affirming” culture.
On one hand, the current age is a stressful one. On the other, it’s become socially acceptable to feel anxious about our lives, with anxiety becoming almost a “badge of honour.” Symptoms of anxiety include feelings of panic, excessive sweating, discomfort and headache, he says, adding many urban professionals report such symptoms, which they blame, at least partly, on their work.
It’s easy to be diagnosed for anxiety, Dowbiggin says, and the treatment is often drugs. Psychiatric drug use has risen sharply along with the diagnoses of anxiety, he notes, but then the pharmaceutical industry also plays a role in the “anxiety story.”
He admits to being skeptical of “mass prescription drugs, or at least the mass prescribing of drugs for people with anxiety disorders.” It’s a matter of record, he says, that drug companies have pushed certain medications, especially drugs known as SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), which are typically used as anti-depressants.
By pushing such drugs, Dowbiggin says the pharmaceutical industry pressures organizations like the American Psychiatric Association to change the diagnostic systems to include more types of disorders.
“If you’re asking whether medication is the proper treatment for anxiety, I would say there are other forms of treatment, including counseling, that in some cases have proven to be just as effective as drug therapy,” Dowbiggin says, “but, of course, drug therapy in the eyes of third-party insurers tends to be less expensive than long, drawn-out counseling, so you can see also that the economics surrounding health insurance favours the use of drugs.”
While the stigma surrounding mental disorders like bipolar and schizophrenia remains intense, Dowbiggin says it isn’t as heavy surrounding “less serious mental illnesses,” including those that affect the so-called “worried well.”
Like anxiety disorders, delusional disorders also aren’t on the extreme end of the mental-illness scale. “Very often delusions (once referred to as paranoia) can derive from fears that you’re being persecuted, that people are talking behind your back,” Dowbiggin says. “I would imagine that people who suffer from delusional disorder must experience real challenges in the workplace, especially in workplaces where it’s hard to see the actual chain of command.”
Jeremy Bennett racks up a fair number of miles each year as a motivational speaker.
Many of his keynote addresses are about business and the mind; how to achieve your goals and grow your company. But the 27-year-old native of Flat Bay near Stephenville on Newfoundland’s west coast usually spends a few minutes of each speech on his struggle with OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder), depression and anxiety.
Following one such keynote address in the spring of 2009 to the Atlantic Provinces Chambers of Commerce in St. John’s, Bennett said he received a load of e-mails, 90 per cent of which didn’t have to do with the business part of his speech, so much as the few minutes he touched on mental illness.
“I came to notice very quickly that a large portion of the people who come to see me, to talk about business, suffer from anxiety, OCD, and depression,” says Bennett, who holds a degree in psychology from St. Francis Xavier University, and wrote the 2010 book, The Power of the Mind, How I beat OCD.
“I don’t know if they’re diagnosed … but they often confide in me about what they’re going through with mental illness and they usually say, ‘Jeremy, you’re the first person I’ve ever told’.”
Bennett says most of the business people who approach him haven’t reached out for help “because they’re scared to death of the stigma.” That said, he says he generally advises them to seek professional help, while at the same time delivering the “unorthodox” message that anxiety isn’t such a bad thing.
“99.9 per cent of people will say physical pain is a bad thing, but physical pain is a wonderful thing. If we didn’t have physical pain, we’d all be dead. Imagine breaking your leg but not having the ability to feel the pain associated with your broken leg,” Bennett says.
“Anxiety is like physical pain of the brain or the mind. It’s here as a warning sign to say, ‘Hold on, you’ve got to slow down’,” he continues. “When you think of anxiety in a bad way, you’re actually hating something inside of you. And when you hate something inside you, you’re feeding it the fuel it needs to grow and strengthen.”
It’s hard enough for an entrepreneur or business leader to succeed at the best of times. Surely it must be harder still when they suffer from mental illness?
Bennett disagrees, pointing out that OCD, for example, helps him to work to the best of his ability. “I think most extremely successful people have a touch of obsession because, I mean, you’ve kind of got to in order to achieve a tremendous level of success. You’ve got to be obsessive about your work.”
Bennett developed OCD at the age of 12, an illness that steadily worsened to the point where he carried out six hours of rituals a day, including incessant counting, tapping, and opening and closing doors. Doctors told Bennett that his illness was incurable, but a decade later, he is not only beating OCD, he’s doing so without medication. “By no means am I saying medication is not the way to go, because medication saves lives, but it didn’t work for me.”
Medication works for Paul Vincent. He takes pills every morning for his ADD and chronic depression, but he didn’t always.
As for how he came to be diagnosed with mental illness, Vincent says he was driving in Vancouver one day listening to Rafe Mair, a popular radio personality, who spoke about his life-long battle with anxiety and depression. “Rafe started talking about it and how it affected his life and here was this guy, this former politician, a lawyer, the whole bit, and I said ‘Geez, that sounds like me’,” says Vincent.
“So I actually pulled over to the shoulder of the road and sat there for a while before I decided there and then that I was going to see my GP immediately, which I did.”
Vincent was prescribed medication, but dropped it almost immediately. “The one thing I’ve discovered about mental illness, and anybody who’s experienced it will tell you, that it’s so easy to be convinced that you’re not really ill.”
After stopping his medication, Vincent says he literally started talking to himself. He also followed the advice of his Newfoundland upbringing and tried to pull himself up by his bootstraps. He couldn’t.
Vincent carried on with his life, eventually pulling up stakes about six years ago and moving to St. John’s with his wife. He’s suffered from highs and lows in his business career since, but he’s been on medication for almost two years. “It’s made a big difference,” says Vincent, who praises his wife for standing by him (including, he says, with the publication of this article).
Besides both being involved in Far Atlantic, the proposed refit and repair yard in Newfoundland for luxury super yachts, Vincent and Cryderman are also working together (with the co-operation of the local chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association) to form a support group for entrepreneurs and business people with mental illness.
“Maybe if we all come together we can help each other in terms of coping strategies and advice,” says Vincent. “At the end of the day, I just want people in the community at large to be better educated, understand us much better and become part of our support network.”
“I was just saying to Paul the other day,” says Cryderman, “this illness is never going to go away. …We’ve learned a lot of things. Keep a journal. Find out when you’re down, (and) when you go up. Record this type of thing. That may be useful information to a business person who’s never come out yet… he (or she) must be frightened to death.”
Not to mention lonely.
Cryderman recalls the time he told Vincent he suffers from mental illness. “I said, ‘I should tell you up front I have bipolar. If you see my behaviour and you think it’s a bit strange, there’s a reason.’ And he just about kissed me. He said, ‘Jesus, I’m so happy to hear that’.”