Seeing mental illness in the modern day

The text started with goodbye. He stood on a balcony alone, overlooking the coulees — the setting sun painted warm tones on the hills which stood in stark contrast to the darkness he felt inside. Paying no attention to the sunset or singing birds, he let all his built-up feelings out in a message to his little sister. His head was heavy, as if an energy pressed him into the ground. All he could think was, “I just want this to end,” before he turned into a pile of tears on the balcony where he wanted to end his life. 

“It was painful because you see me as a happy-go-lucky person. You’re not a happy-go-lucky person [when you are] carrying so much pain,” said Victor lyilade Jr.

On Halloween 2015 lyilade Jr. made a vow to himself and his little sister — he would seek professional help for his mental health. After he sent the text he got a phone call from his best friend; she wanted to talk and make sure he was okOK. Meanwhile, his sister was rushing to check on him. They sat together for a while, until eventually she convinced him to seek help. A few weeks later he was diagnosed with depression.

At his worst, lyilade Jr’s depression made him not want to be alive. He partied to mask his pain, pushed people away and lost passion for schoolwork and hobbies. 

“Because I was flunking my classes so hard, I ended up having to spend two extra years at the university to get my first degree. I don’t regret any of those things — I felt like that thing almost needed to happen in order for me to process [and] get into a better headspace,” said lyilade Jr.

He now lives with his diagnosis and is working on a second degree at the University of Lethbridge. He goes to school part time, while working full time at 5th On 5th Youth Services.

Things like bullying, racism, loss of family members and a break-up piled on until he reached a tipping point. He did not want to seek help because of stigma attached to going to a councillorcounsellor. He thought he had to be strong and never gave himself time to process things that were hurting him. Leaving mental health problems untreated is not uncommon; suicide is the leading cause of death in Canadian males, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

“I was hurting and my behaviour was also hurting other people too as a result because I was carrying so much pain within me,” said lyilade Jr.

Though he always advocated for people to seek help and counselling, he hesitated to himself. Lyilade Jr. was born in Nigeria, grew up in the Middle East and eventually came to Lethbridge to attend university. He has been here since 2011, but said home is still an abstract idea to him. He said he pushed his mental health to the side until he had to face it.

“When you keep stuffing things inside a box and you don’t declutter it, eventually that box is going to overflow… mentally I just had no more space, emotionally I had no more space to keep bottling all this pain and anger,” he said.

Since being diagnosed, lyilade Jr. has been open about his depression. He shared his story on Instagram through a page called Seeing Mental Illness. When his friends saw the post, they were surprised because they never knew the struggles he faced. He said he always had a lot of friends, but never felt he could talk about his mental health with them. After sharing his story, he found they were willing to listen. 

Seeing Mental Illness is a project that aims to shine light on the reality of mental illness and make people more open to talk about it. 

“I knew that what society [sees] and what happens behind closed doors are two very different things, so I wanted to show the side of what happens behind closed doors when we struggle with mental health,” said Sydney Cleland, founder of the project. 

She said her goal is to tell real, raw stories that show mental illness in an honest light. When people message her wanting to be featured on the page, she is selective of which stories are shared. Cleland makes a point not to glamorize mental illness. 

“It is almost like a popular thing right now to have a mental illness so I am hoping with the rawness of these stories people can see it is not something you should ever aspire to have, but it is something that is very real,” she said.

When she was first diagnosed, she did not understand what anxiety was. She said she was scared to talk about it and lost friends when she did. In 2008, 42 per cent of Canadians said they were unsure whether they would socialize with a friend who has a mental illness, according to the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health (CAMH.) Cleland’s Instagram became a way she could connect with others who share similar stories.

“I think social media has brought a ton of awareness and if I had it growing up and if I knew anxiety was a thing, I think I would have had a lot easier of a go with it than I did,” said Cleland.

Similar to lyilade Jr., she was bullied growing up — she believes she always suffered from anxiety but did not know what it was. She dismissed it as physical health issues, telling her doctors she had stomach aches and her head hurt. The anxiety did not go away when she got older; it got worse.

“At the end of my university career I had destroyed myself, pushing myself so hard… I had a fear of failing and not being what everyone expected me to be,” she said.

When Cleland started the project, she was in her first year working as a middle school teacher. She used every weekend for about three months to work on the page. Though it was challenging and draining, she said it helped her feel less alone. 

“The summer before I started this project, I was in the worst place I think I have ever been mentally and it took a lot to pull me out of that place. This project was one of those things — it gave me a purpose,” she said.

When her anxiety and depression reached its worsepeak, Cleland said she pushed friends away, drank and partied too much and did not take care of herself. She recognized she was trying to harm herself but was scared to open up and ask for help.

“It took to the point of, ‘I don’t want to live,’ and had made plans to take my life that I was like, ‘what am I doing? I need to be the one to pull myself out of this,’” said Cleland.

After her diagnosis, she was put on eight different medications over the span of a year. They did not work for her. Her mother also pressured her to see a therapist to and she said it was the only treatment that helped. She said medication masked her problems and trauma, but her therapist explained them to her and helped her work through them.

“He changed my life. If it was not for him, I probably would not be here and I definitely wouldn’t be the person I am,” she said. 

Her project is not about trying to be a social media influencer — Cleland said she dislikes social media and feels people become obsessed with it. She only uses it because it gives her a platform which can reach a large audience. After making a post, she does not look at the comments or how many likes it gets. She said she only checks social media when she is working on the project. 

Cleland said though she wants to spread awareness of mental illness through her Instagram, the posts are often most helpful for the people sharing their stories, such as lyilade Jr.

He said self-awareness has been one of the most important factors in learning to live with his mental illness. When he first fell into depression, he said it was because he lost his ability to be self-aware of his own triggers.

“Even people who have a diagnosable mental illness can still be mentally healthy, so there are days where they’re doing really good, they are managing their symptoms and are happy. Then there will be other days where their symptoms of their mental illness will come up and show itself,” says Chris Windle, Alberta Health Services addiction and mental health promotion facilitator.

Windle said we should look at mental health similar to like the way we look at physical health. She said people are accessing treatment more often because of initiatives like Bell Let’s Talk and social media raising awareness.

lyilade Jr. and Cleland were both scared to talk about their mental illness when they were diagnosed. According to CAMH, by the time Canadians reach 40-years-old, one-in-two will have, or have had, a mental illness.

“Now we are in a point where people need to not only talk about it — they need to also understand it and start implementing some kind of changes into everyday society,” said Cleland 

Lethbridge College cancels classes due to COVID-19

With 56 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in Alberta, Lethbridge College is moving classes to an online platform. A release from the college says classes will be suspended Monday and Tuesday and moved to online delivery on March. 18. All K-12 classes in the province will also be cancelled.

“While no cases of COVID-19 have been linked to our campus, we want to take proactive steps to help during this time. We know that these are unprecedented times. And we know that many of you are feeling stressed and anxious about how this global pandemic is affecting our homes, communities and the entire world,” reads the update sent to students and staff on Sunday.

The college said it is following recommendations from Alberta Health Services (AHS) and the Alberta government. 

“Our biggest concern right now is the health and safety of our students — we don’t want them all getting sick, so we are making sure that we are doing everything we can to prevent that,” said Frank Zappone, occupational health and safety lead at the college, prior to the cancellation of classes.

“We are going by what Alberta Health Services is advising us to do,” he said, adding that they are watching the virus closely.

With over 50 confirmed cases in the province, two Alberta patients are in intensive care — Canada still has only one recorded death due to the virus. A man in his 80s with underlying health issues died on March 8 in Vancouver.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said on Wednesday that between 30 per cent and 70 per cent of the population of Canada could acquire the COVID-19 virus. Though the vast majority will recover, she said Canadians must work together to protect the vulnerable population. 

According to the WHO, the average global mortality rate is 3.4 per cent. This number may seem insignificant, but at the low estimate of 30 per cent of Canadians being infected, that could result in 383,418 deaths.

“The reason I personally feel safe is because it is a virus, just like influenza is a virus and there are precautionary measure you can take. The other thing is that the recovery from the coronavirus is about 94 per cent,” said Harmoni Jones, manager of Wellness Services at Lethbridge College.

Jones said the first step the college took to prevent the spread of COVID-19 was to increase cleaning and sanitization of high-traffic areas. Preventative measures such as staying home when sick and proper hand washing are encouraged.

“We have also looked at large events and whether we should continue with [them] and what are some precautionary measures we would need to put in place if we are going to have large social gatherings,” said Jones.

The college has cancelled its annual Bridging Cultures event, which was set to take place at the end of the month. It is still unclear whether convocation will go ahead as planned.

Jones said students should familiarize themselves with Canvas and how they can use it to its full potential. She also suggests students make sure they have what they need, in case they have to stay home for two weeks due to sickness or potential infection.

“There [has] been discussion around how we can make it so it is not stigmatized, so that people do feel comfortable staying home — but there have only been preliminary discussions around that,” said Jones.

The college launched a web page which will communicate all COVID-19 related news to staff and students. It can be found on Lethbirdgecollege.ca.

Zappone said one of the school’s biggest worries is making sure graduating students are able to finish their education. 

“We want to make sure that that happens. We’re looking at doing everything we can,” he said.

Black history month wraps up with speakers at University of Lethbridge

People stared as he walked down the street, making him wonder what was wrong. Am I dressed funny? He wondered, until his friend explained that people stare because of his black skin.

“Oh, we have white people in Kenya — we don’t look at them like that when they are passing,” said Stephen Onyango, owner of Legend Production and Films.

As Onyango delivered the final line of his anecdote, a small crowd at the University of Lethbridge laughed softly. He was one of three speakers at an event that marked the end of Black History Month. It was put on by the University of Calgary Faculty of Social Work and the theme was resilience in the face of adversity.

“When we think of resilient, we think of someone bouncing back quickly after facing adversities, but I just want to highlight that black people continue to face advertises,” said Patrina Duhaney, a faculty member and organizer of the event. 

Each speaker shared their unique story of adversities they face in everyday life. Onyango moved to Canada from Kenya 12 years ago — he shared challenges he has faced getting an education, raising a son and starting a business in Lethbridge. When he got to Canada, Onyango took the new media course at the university and was the only black person in his classes. He recalled a memory from his student orientation, which he said he will never forget.

“I expected different, but not being asked if I live in a tree — so when this guy asked me if I lived in a tree, I remembered that cause my dad was called a monkey. Monkeys live in trees and since we are black, maybe we live in trees,” he said about a question he was asked after telling someone where he is from.

After a year of being at the university, Onyango said people began treating him as an equal. He was happy and things were going well for him. Then he faced a new challenge — being a single father. After having a son, he found himself in court fighting for 50/50 custody.

“When I went to court, I would stand in front of a judge. When you stand up — you’re black in the middle of all these white people and you’re in a family court. You know it’s going to be hard,” he said.

Onyango said he had to deal with stereotypes because of his skin colour. He said people think black men do not take care of their children. It took him two years to get half custody of his son, who is now 10 years old. 

“Since I was the only black person in his life, I had to be the best dad that he could have,” said Onyango. He passed a photo of his son around the room as he continued his speech.

“When he is with me, I teach him how to be black. When he is with his mom, he’s taught how to be white — So he is very confused.”

When Onyango decided to start his own production company, he faced challenges with clients because of his skin colour. When he was working on a video involving local businesses, he said he had one business owner spread rumors about him — this damaged his reputation. He has had people not want to work with him because he is black. He said he is proud of who he is and he posts photos of himself on his website. 

“I want to be as loud as possible, so you go there, you know you are hiring a black person,” he said. He wrapped up his speech by tracking down the photo he passed around of his son and tucking safely into his wallet.

Tiny homes provide alternative to traditional housing

When it comes to finding a place to hang your hat, traditionally there are two options – rent or buy. One Lethbridge man is embracing a new option.

Michael Bartz, a Lethbridge College student life associate, has spent the past two years working on building himself a tiny home, with the goal of reducing his cost of living and avoiding debt. 

“I think the house encompasses a lot of those ideas of community and sustainability. Worst case scenario, if I lost my job and all my money – I have my house, I paid cash for it… I could park in a Walmart parking lot and live for a while,” said Bartz.

His tiny home is on wheels, meaning he may run into problems with bylaws when searching for a place to park it. According to the City of Lethbridge, tiny homes that are not on a foundation are not suitable for permanent habitation. The alternative homes are legal if they are built on a foundation, connected to utilities and meet Alberta Building Code requirements.

“For me, because I know the risk that, yes, I could be asked to move and I can’t legally park there. I know that risk and I am doing that, in spite of [it],” he said.

Bartz said he likes the alternate lifestyle tiny homes provide and he believes having zones for them would not align with the movement and what it stands for.

Teacup Tiny Homes builds houses on wheels that are certified as recreational vehicles. Its goal is to diversify the housing market and give people the option to live smaller, according to owner, Jennifer McCarthy.

“If you don’t have a CSA certified or RVIA build or something like that, then typically you are not going to be allowed in any municipality, legally,” said McCarthy.

She said the City of Lethbridge has agreed to work with her business if one of her clients decides to park their tiny home in the city.

“It needs to be on a foundation, which we can do. It needs to be permanently hooked up to city services, which we can also do. If the services are there and it has to be zoned properly,” said McCarthy.

Avoiding debt is not his only motivation for owning a tiny house – Bartz said living in a tiny home is as much about the lifestyle as the financial benefits. A tiny home for Bartz means having the freedom to travel and still have a place to call home, which he feels is less stressful. 

“Another part of it for me is developing community wherever I am. If I am parked in someone’s backyard, I get to know those people. It kind of forces you to develop that community. I don’t have a gym and a library or any of that stuff in my house, so I am forced to go to those places,” he said.

McCarthy, like Bartz, said one of the biggest factors in buying a tiny home is freedom, whether financial or the freedom to move around. 

“I’d rather do something that’s amazing and different and challenging, instead of just following the status quo,” said Bartz.

Lethbridge shows its support for addiction awareness week

Lethbridge Citizens walked to show their support for national addiction awareness week (NAAW) on Monday. The walk, which began at city hall, brought together various groups and individuals passionate about education surrounding addiction.

“It brings everyone together, it reduces stigma, it helps to provide accurate information [and] it provides an opportunity for networking,” said Ashlynne Ball, supervisor with McMan Youth, Family and Community Services.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) has made this year’s NAAW theme ending stigma surrounding addiction, giving it the name “stigma ends with me.” On its website, it says the organization wants to increase the public’s understanding of how stigma can affect individuals suffering from addiction.

“I really think that ending stigma is one of the most important things to address… we need to spread love instead of hate,” said Ball.

She believes the community can be more effective by coming together to solve problems, rather than focusing on an “us vs. them” mindset.

“We have to get people to help us, we can’t do it alone,” said Robbie Gros Ventre Boy, a member of the Sage Clan, a non-profit group of volunteers who provide assistance to people experiencing addiction or homelessness.

The group walks around downtown Lethbridge three or four times a week, handing out food and assisting people in various ways.

“If anyone has a problem, we help them out,” said Ventre Boy. He said the group cannot change people, but they can provide assistance in any way possible.

“I volunteer because I care for the people downtown,” he said. “I used to be like that before, not now. I am educated, I am well. I have my own family.”

Venture Boy says anyone can join the Sage Clan and their goal is to help the community as a whole, as well as individuals. They want to ensure the community is a safe place for everyone.

“I think we really need to pull together as a community [and] work together,” said Ball.

Two brothers at ARCHES use cultural connection to heal addiction

Myles Bruised Head (left) and his brother Joey Blood (right) work together at ARCHES in Lethbridge to connect people to Indigenous culture and heal addiction.

Two brothers are working to change both the way Indigenous culture views addiction and the way people connect to their culture to find a sense of community and identity.

On an average day at ARCHES supervised consumption site (SCS) in Lethbridge, you can find Myles Bruised Head and his brother Joey Blood coaching Indigenous people through addiction.

“It became kind of our motto ‘I can’t wait for the that day we no longer exist in our professions,’” said Bruised Head, cultural coordinator at ARCHES.

Blood is a recovery coach in the Indigenous cultural program and looks forward to the day he is out of a job.

“It’s unfortunate that our jobs have to exist, that it has got to this point,” he said.

He said he hopes the people he helps will in turn coach others in recovery and help them reconnect with their culture.

“We want to show the world our culture, but at the same time, we have to show our own people it first,” said Bruised Head.

He said often when people with addictions move to Lethbridge from reservations, they can become disconnected from their culture and feel embarrassed to go back. Sometimes they are afraid to talk to elders for help with recovery, for fear of disrespecting them.

“We are in such a new era of this that we don’t have any traditional historical stories that could culminate and represent what the opioid crisis is,” said Bruised Head. He said in the past, Indigenous people have struggled with alcohol addiction and elders can find it hard to understand how it differs from opioid addiction.

“It’s always been a one-way passage of knowledge – we are now having to evolve and teach them,” he said. The environment of addiction is changing, not only for Indigenous culture, but for all people. Bruised Head says Indigenous culture has to evolve with it to include new stories and teachings.

“The root of all addiction is social exclusion, social isolation [and] traumatic experiences,” said Jerry Firth, cultural program manager.

He said trauma can change people’s DNA and be passed down in different ways. According to Bruised Head, multi-generational trauma often affects people when they become young adults. After leaving high school, he says a lot of Indigenous people can feel lost and stressed with trying to figure out their place in society.

“That’s why I say living in two worlds becomes really evident once you become an adult. You are sailing on your own boat nowadays, as opposed to us being told all throughout our youth ‘you are Blackfoot, you are a real person and you live here in a community that’s going to protect you,’” said Bruised Head, adding a lot of people access consumption sites because they don’t understand the trauma they feel, which often came from abuse in residential schools.

“They are looking at their parents saying, ‘why are my parents alcoholics or drug addicts,’ when in reality, it is probably because they went to residential schools or they suffered sexual assault from a family member. Not because that is something that exists in native culture, but was something brought upon us,” said Bruised Head.

Some addictions stem from physical trauma, such as an accident at work, which  can lead to an opioid prescription. Others come from trying to cope with mental trauma.

“Everyone who has hurt, that struggles to find a healthy way to deal with it, will inadvertently hurt another person or themselves,” said Firth.

Bruised Head said he and his brother could not do the work they do if Indigenous ways were dying.

“What we are realizing now is that they are thriving, but not only that, we are able to evolve them to meet the needs of the opioid crisis,” he Bruised Head.

Local pastor squares off in MMA cage

The fighter looked down and took a deep breath before making his way to the cage. As he walked under the red lights towards his opponent, U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday boomed from the sound-system. The room was full of cheers as the pastor walked up the steps into the cage.

“And in the red corner, Fighting out of CMC (Canadian Martial Arts Centre) in Lethbridge… Frank the Tank Allen!” called out the announcer as the room exploded with support for the first-time fighter.

A pastor by trade, Frank Allen, took up mixed martial arts at the age of 41 as a way to lose weight and get into better shape. For eight months he trained five days a week – starting at six in the morning he spent an hour each day doing MMA and fitness training. Since he started training, he lost 50 pounds, he said.

“When I talk about discipline I think it translates into every part of our lives, whether it’s our physical stuff, our spiritual life, all of it. Discipline is so critically important to our lives,” said Allen.

Among the crowd was Jason Allen, Frank’s brother, who came from Victoria, B.C to watch the match. After seeing a post on Facebook about Frank’s first cage fight, Jason decided he would surprise his brother with a visit.

“I don’t get excited about a lot of things, but the week leading up to coming in, I just couldn’t wait for the week to be done. I was super excited to see him… I haven’t seen him in, I’m going to guess, three or four years,” he said.

Jason said it was a great moment when he saw his brother fight in the cage. He was not surprised when Frank first told him he was training as a mixed martial artist.

“We’re very focus driven and have that fitness side. I know growing up he played football for a long time and that was a big drive in his life. Of course, he has the church and God, but the physical aspect of things, that is something for him to focus on and have goals to achieve which has been fantastic for him,” he said.

Frank has been a pastor for 15 years, currently he is at the Lethbridge Christian Tabernacle. He said, though some people are not fond of the idea of a pastor throwing punches, many people from his congregation were at Rumble in the Cage 62 on the weekend to support him.

“Your winner, by tap out, due to arm triangle, at 1:20 of the first round, Frank the Tank Allen!” The announcer called as the referee raised Allen’s arm in victory.

Sunday Bloody Sunday, along with cheering, filled the room as the pastor turned to his opponent, grabbed his hand and gave him a quick hug and pat on the back.

“I was blessed in how it went in the cage, but I feel like the fight was the really the seven months leading up to it. It was every day, trying to get up at 5:30 in the morning, to get to the gym to train and get ready. It feels like all that was the hard fight and I just got to have fun last night,” he said at his church service the morning after the fight.

He was met with congratulations as well as light-hearted jokes. One member of the church referred to him as the “pastor of disaster.”

The next Rumble in the Cage will be in April and Allen has not yet decided if he will continue fighting.

“Originally I got into the program using the fight as the goal to get in shape and I’ve lost some weight, but I still have some to go, so I’m thinking maybe I’ll take one more,” he said.

Local rock band’s original music keeps crowd coming back

A lone performer sings to a crowded bar – in the audience his band members and long-time friends prepare to join him. As he finishes the opening song, his three bandmates populate the stage and without a moment of silence the band’s explosive energy fills the room. The crowd is drawn to the front of the stage to hear Biloxi Parish play new songs and old favourites.

The group had planned to begin recording a new album this month but decided to push it back, according to frontman Zach Passey. He says he has been writing a lot of new content and the group wants more time to explore it. They are now hoping to record in spring, he says.

Biloxi Parish’s unique songwriting, high energy and humble demeanour keeps crowds coming back to the Owl Acoustic Lounge, where they play regularly.

Cole Howg plays drums with Biloxi Parish at the Owl Acoustic Lounge.

“I always get uncomfortable with the idea of having fans or something like that. It never feels like that, it feels like we’re all just like one big hang out,” comments drummer Cole Howg.

Guitarist Taran Duncan says the band is lucky to have The Owl when playing songs for the first time because it feels like home after playing there so long. Since recording their first full length-album, Providence, they have taken on a new bassist and grown into their sound.

Taran Duncan performs with Biloxi Parish at the Owl Acoustic Lounge.

“I feel like everybody kinda found their groove and they also are a little more confident with their instruments. Even though I have been playing guitar for a long time, I feel like I’ve been able to shine a bit more on this album,” says Duncan.

Ben Wattie learned to play bass guitar specifically to join the band, “it was cool to go from being a fan to being a part of the process,” he says.

Biloxi Parish focuses on original music – Passey writes lyrics and brings them to the other members to be shaped into a finished product. He says he draws much of his inspiration from cinema and literature.

“I think lyrically my biggest focus is trying to have emotional qualities to the lyrics that people can grab on. I think that’s important – people have to be able to not just relate, but kind of feel it,” said Passey, adding that even if listeners cannot relate to a song, he wants them to at least understand the weight of its subject matter.

Ben Wattie plays bass with Biloxi Parish At the Owl Acoustic Lounge.

Passey says he finds it more interesting lyrically to avoid love songs and delve into different subject matter.

“Most songs these days are love songs. My favourite songs are love songs, but Zach has been really good at doing storyteller songs that aren’t always about a girl,” says Howg.

The band’s passion for storytelling is evident in live performances. Passey sings with high energy, engaging the audience and taking up the entire stage.

“We try our best to give people a show and we do it for them. If they legitimately like our music, we want to be the best we can be for them,” says Passey.

After playing for many crowds, starting at around age 15, both the drummer and frontman agree a good crowd is about quality over quantity. The band strives to put on the same show, regardless of the size of the crowd.

“It’s more or less we play for ourselves because no matter what the show may look like, we do try to have fun. So if we are only playing for the crowd, that means if there was only five people there, we’d only play for five people worth of a set,” says Howg.

Passey said the band is ready to take the next step to get their new music heard and build a broader audience. They want to play more shows and try to tour outside of the province.

“I think the goal is to consciously just keep moving forward and whatever that looks like, or whatever that feels like, as long as it feels right for us, that’s satisfying enough,” says Passey.