Helen MacDonnell of Moncton, New Brunswick is the force behind Women & Wellness, a group that began meeting in 2004 to bring together people tired of whispering about mental-health illness. That’s the “pretty story,” says MacDonnell. The harsh reality is that the group was instigated by her brother’s suicide in 2003.
MacDonnell’s 47-year-old brother Duncan killed himself while living alone in Vancouver. His family didn’t learn he had suffered from bipolar disorder until after his death when they cleaned out his apartment and read his journals.
MacDonnell says her brother had an IQ of 130, and was well educated with degrees from Queen’s University and Mount St. Vincent, but he couldn’t manage money and bounced around from job to job. “So he tried really hard,” says MacDonnell. “He tried really hard to get help for himself (including medication), but he also had previous suicide attempts, none of which we knew about.”
After one particular suicide attempt, MacDonnell says her brother wrote two questions in his journal: “Have I done any damage? Should I go to the hospital?”
“All of a sudden I read that and I went, ‘Oh my God, this guy didn’t want to die.’ It was like there’s such a blackness and despair and loneliness that comes with mental illness.”
MacDonnell read all she could about mental illness. She started talking to people, and began to realize the number of people whose lives are impacted by mental illness. She joined the board of the Canadian Mental Health Association in Moncton, but she wanted to do more to raise money and awareness.
So she had a little party in her kitchen in January 2004, for her own mental health, and the event (which raised more than $1,200) grew into Women & Wellness, an opportunity for women to share their personal stories with mental health. “Having mental illness doesn’t mean your life is going to end,” MacDonnell says. “You can get help, you can survive and thrive.”
Women and Wellness events will be held this January in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, PEI, Ontario and British Columbia. Last year more than 1,600 women took part, with an estimated $400,000 raised to date. Major companies like Scotiabank, Medavie Bluecross and others enthusiastically support Women & Wellness because they understand that mental health is important among their employee base (as well as their customers) and they realize the benefits of building awareness and supporting fundraising, not only to their business, but to society. Great momentum is building as more people find the courage to “speak, not whisper” about mental health.
MacDonnell says awareness of mental illness is critical. “What’s really important for my heart and soul is that some other family doesn’t have to lose a brother or sister or loved one because they didn’t understand or didn’t see the signs.