It all started at fourteen years of age. Mental illness does not care about age. It has no bias. For Shawna Priestley, now 25 years old, her story began over a decade ago.
Shawna lived through a horrific and tragic childhood. She was sexually abused by her father as a child, which she indicates was a major trigger for her. "It was really the tragic part that affected my mental health," she said.
At 15, Shawna decided to move out on her own. She dropped out of school and had her first child at age 16.
Shawna said she began self-medicating with drugs and alcohol to help her escape from reality. The birth of her child changed all of this. All of her time and energy went towards taking care of her child, yet the real issues she was dealing with were never addressed.
At 19, Shawna was ready to talk about what happened to her as a child. She spoke to her family about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. It was three weeks after that, and a week before her wedding, when her father took his own life in front of the family.
This experience added an unimaginable burden, not only to Shawna but her family as well. "I was trying to take it all on my shoulders and make everything better. That’s when I woke up one day and didn’t know my own name," said Shawna.
Her first experience with psychosis involved a multitude of delusions. These were incredibly real for Shawna, despite the fact that those around her could tell something was not right.
Psychosis is a condition of the brain that causes a person to potentially lose touch with reality. Their sensory perception, judgement and organization of thoughts can be distorted. The onset of psychosis is most common between the ages of 14 and 24, but psychosis can occur to anyone, at any age.
Shawna, now with two young children, was eventually admitted into the Peterborough Regional Health Centre Mental Health unit for three months. Looking back, Shawna says she still lacked the proper education and tools to remain healthy after her discharge.
Following a year of wellness, Shawna decided to move to Niagara Falls with her partner. About a year and a half later, her symptoms began to creep back into her life. Through her prior experience, she and her partner were aware of the signs and she was quickly admitted into hospital for the second time.
After another three month stay, she decided that, with two young children at home, the most important thing to do was to become educated about mental health.
“I wanted to stop myself from ever going back to that point. I wasn’t in a psychotic break or showing symptoms, but I actually took myself in to the Lynx Program in Campbellford and met Ann, who is now my social worker as well as my co-worker.”
Shawna wasn’t officially diagnosed with bi-polar disorder until the age of 19. She says there were early warning signs throughout her adolescence, but they were never caught. She says this was due to a lack of knowledge about what mental health actually looks like. This is one of the main reasons Shawna now is giving her voice to mental health awareness.
She has now come full circle with a job as a peer support worker with the Lynx Program in Campbellford.
“Since that day I have never felt healthier. The more I learn, the more I become confident in being bi-polar, and by talking, it helps to remove the stigma.”
Lynx provided Shawna with the tools and education to be the strong person she is today. Through their multi-disciplinary team, which includes case managers, family education and support workers, peer support workers and psychiatrists, the Lynx program is one of the most renowned models for early intervention in Canada.
There are seven collaborating agencies which form a network to deliver early intervention services throughout the four counties. They include: Canadian Mental Health Association, Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge Branch, Peterborough Regional Health Centre, Ross Memorial Hospital, Haliburton Highlands Mental Health Services, Campbellford Memorial Hospital, Northumberland Hills Hospital and the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario.
The Lynx Program has a commitment to respond by phone within 72 hours, have a face to face visit with the client within three days after the phone conversation and, if they screen in with possible psychosis, the individual will meet with a program psychiatrist within three weeks.
Gord Langill, who works for the Lynx Program in Peterborough, says by identifying the illness in its early stages, many people are able to continue living a regular life.
“Without early intervention many individuals experience a lot more suffering. Their work, school and social life all can go downhill. That is why we need early intervention, it helps prevent this process and the psychosis will have less drastic effects.”
Some of the early warning signs include: suspiciousness; things seeming different, unreal or surreal; recent decline at school or at work; a decline in concentration; social withdrawal; decrease or increase in energy.
“The signs are subtle. They are real, they are clear, but they are not acute,” Langill states.
With greater acceptance and education, programs like Lynx are better able to serve individuals who are experiencing psychosis.
“I think a lot of young people who I talk to now are cooler with psychosis. They don’t talk about it with as much fear or discomfort or stigma as we saw, even five years ago,” said Langill.
Looking back on her experience, Shawna says she didn’t know what mental health was. “I wanted to be a teacher, I wanted to do things with my life but I thought, well, I’m a crazy person, who’s going to let me do anything? So I educated myself and surrounded myself with people, with and without mental illness, and realized it’s not that few and far between.”
The work and education Shawna has done through the Lynx program has changed her perception of what mental health actually looks like.
“I have a 100% different view on mental health now that I am working with and through Lynx than I did before.”
About one in four people—over six and a half million Canadians—will experience a mental health problem during their lifetime.
Unfortunately, many people don’t ask for help. They feel ashamed or scared. People may judge them and treat them negatively based on a mental health problem. Others have trouble finding a place to live, finding a job, maintaining relationships and other important parts of life. In fact, most people living with a mental health issue say that stigma is worse than the symptoms they feel.
Shawna believes we have made tremendous strides in trying to break down the stigma. “The stigma will be removed if people just start standing up and say: "Hey, it's not what you think it is." This is no different than cancer or a broken leg. Just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean physically it’s not there.”
Statistics show there is such value in standing up and telling someone in your life something is wrong. It can make all the difference in getting the proper help needed.
“You can’t expect people to know about something you haven’t given a voice to,” she said. “Don’t allow yourself to be alone in your head with it. It can be so damaging and just giving your problems a voice is what it comes down to because we all have them and it’s not as rare as you think it is. Everybody has something and it is no less relevant than the other.”
The passion with which Shawna talks about her own story and about mental health in general is awe inspiring. She is a very courageous woman whose message has the power to change someone’s life.
“Use your voice. Don’t be afraid to talk. Everybody talks. Give a voice to the problem because if it’s not yourself you are helping, you may be helping the next person beside you that you don’t even know is going through something.”
For further information about the Lynx Early Psychosis Intervention program or about CMHA programs, call: (705) 748-6711.
—story by PTBOCanada contributor Kyle Dupont
Kyle is a Communications Officer with the Canadian Mental Health Association's Peterborough Branch and a freelance writer. Born and raised in Peterborough, Kyle is a recent graduate from New Brunswick Community College and he also holds a BA in History from Brock University. You can reach him here.