Mind the Gap

There are times in our lives when we look up and notice a space has suddenly appeared in the group of people that surround us. In these moments, we feel the gap that has been left and the emptiness of what is missing. So it was for some friends this week who lost a family member who took his own life. A hole was torn in their lives and they feel keenly the emotional and physical absence that is now a part of their lives.

It may be easy to say, “that would never happen to me” or that, “I would never do that,” but all too often this happens, and all too often those who feel the unbearable pain of their lives decide they can no longer face the hurdles life throws at them and they leave us. It would also be easy to nod our heads and make sympathetic noises, but this is not enough given the pain felt by those who attempt or succeed in taking their lives or by those who are left behind to continue on without that precious soul to journey with them.

Mental health is undeniably one of the largest challenges we face as a society and we have made some progress in recent years in trying to address this. Groups have formed, individuals have advocated, and finally we have a national Mental Health Commission but this is not enough, not nearly enough. Amongst adults, mental illness affects 1 in 4. In youth, of that 1 in 4 only 20% receive any treatment. Economically there are estimates that mental illness costs our economy $50 million dollars per year. And, according to The Canadian Mental Health Association, 15 people die of suicide for every 100,000 deaths.

Let’s think about that number. In London, our population is about 352,395. So this means that there is a potential of us losing about 52 empty holes of loss in our community every year to suicide. If we take this further and look at every 5 years we have lost 260 people in our community. This leaves me asking – are we doing enough? Are we assigning an appropriate amount of our resources and time to ensuring we don’t lose the equivalent of a plane load of citizens every 5 years to the unbearable pain and loss of suicide. I don’t think so.

Even beyond the loss of life, the pain and suffering we allow to go on in our communities cannot be seen as anything other than unconscionable. Waiting lists, under-resourced staffing, our inability to build a system of mental wellness from the bright spring of early years through the deep autumn at the end of our lives speaks to our leaders and our own lack of thought and care.

Right now, right this very second, there are thousands upon thousands of people in our community that are in pain and do not have access to the resources needed to move through their illness and into wellness. From the most vulnerable and homeless to the middle class worker in a company, the time it takes from recognizing a problem to receiving treatment and support is much too long. In many cases I have personally witnessed adults and youth wait more than a year from the time they seek help.

Despite this, we have the recent good news of the formation of CMHA Middlesex and it’s new CEO Don Seymour. This organization and this leader are deeply committed to meeting the challenges of, and overcoming the lack of, resources in London and area. Also the recent appointment of Louise Petrie as Executive Director at Family Services Thames Valley is another sign of hope. FSTV provides counselling and support in London – a kind of mental health for the rest of us.

But my friend’s family, who lost a part of itself this week, are now left to mourn their loss and try to continue on without someone they loved. For them there is no remedy but to be taken in the arms of each other and their community to try and heal and move forward. What you don’t know about this family is that they have been mental health advocates for many years and have worked tirelessly for improved mental health services for all of us. Yet despite this, they find themselves faced by this most tragic and devastating of circumstances.

Reading this, you might feel the need to help and take some action. I hope so, and if this is the case, there are things you can do to move our community forward and build upon the work already being done. Donate to CMHA Middlesex or Family Services Thames Valley. Go to the CMHA website and learn more about mental health and mental illness. Understand the resources that are available in our community for yourself and for those you know who may need help. In your workplace, begin a conversation about mental health and ask your employer about what resources are available. If there are none, then do some research and help your employer get them. At our schools and community, understand the needs of child and youth mental health and the often fractured and bewildering obstacles to getting care and speak up about it to your school boards and local leaders. Demand of our leaders at all levels that they support and fund mental wellness and health. And finally, remember this family and thousands of others that have dealt with, and are dealing with, the struggle with mental illness and the astronomical cost it inflicts on them.

Our community, and every other, needs to come to grips with mental health and our inability to deal with it. We have a responsibility to one another to do this and to take action. I have said to some that I refuse to live in a city where we leave people behind. Sadly this week we did, and the responsibly for this is one we all should share and take action on.

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Intrinsic Value

As we hurdle out of the last budget of the current council to the upcoming municipal elections in October and the collective decision on who will represent us  we need to consider how and where we invest ourselves. In other words we need to consider the intrinsic value of our citizenship, how we apply it, and where we invest our resources and efforts.

We have a number of large decisions in front of us in the very near future. The Performing Arts Centre, Transit, Downtown Master Plan, Cultural Prosperity Plan, and most importantly Rethink London, our Cities Official Plan. In many cases on our local talk radio stations, and in the comments section in the London Free Press, this discussion if often reduced to the point where the only consideration is the dollar value of that investment. In Counsel we mostly see the discussion come down to a matter of dollars and cents. But is this the only measure by which we should consider our future planning and direction? I am not sure

At London X, a conference held by Emerging Leaders of which I am the Executive Director, we heard from Grant Oliphant, CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation. Grant gave us many examples of how Pittsburgh faced their problems locally ,despite an uncooperative municipal government, and came together in a combination of public and private initiatives to retake their river. The river was until recently a picture of the refuse of that cities industrial past. But some community leaders came together and decided to do something about it.

Over the course of more than a decade the work continued until today Pittsburgh is recognized as a world-wide example of how cities can reinvent themselves and grow toward a bright and prosperous future. But in many cases in Pittsburgh the effort was not always about the dollar value but about the civic value of the projects. A great example of this is the fountain by their river.

On it’s face there is no monetary gain to investing in a fountain, What possible economic return could be gained by building such a thing? But to embrace that point of view you would have to ignore the civic value it does bring. It creates a place for citizens to gather, a place for them  to come together and enjoy and recognize the one common cause they all have. Place.

In our consideration of where we invest our time and resources lets us also consider this idea of place. The grounds and spaces where we can gather and come together in the common cause of where we live. If we build a beautiful downtown it should not only be about its cost. If we finally invest in our abandoned Thames River it should be about it’s civic use as much as it is about it’s economic value. Are we bold enough to cover the space between Covent Garden Market and Budweiser Garden permanently in Londoners creating a massive civic square? Can we, as Grant said in his talk, bend toward the light and accelerate our transit and transportation plans for the simple reason that they are good for us collectively? And is it possible to not only consider the dollars and cents of a thing we do but also the much more valuable currency of it being good for us to have these as a city and citizens?

The intrinsic value of a city and it’s citizens is not always a formula that results in an economic sum zero game but is equally, or more so, about the deep value of how we get to the places we gather and where we do that. This is ultimately a deeper value than perhaps we are considering at this time in London and, as Pittsburgh has proven, when we invest this way the benefits are there in economics and civic life.