If you are in distress, you can text 988 at any time. If it is an emergency, call 9-1-1 or go to your local emergency department.

Top reads worth revisiting from the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s magazine

With the tagline “Conversations on Mental Health,” we have a wide berth when considering story ideas for The Catalyst. This is by design. Part of the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s work is to reduce stigma, and that starts by making space for discussions about lived realities, challenges, news, and ideas. We compiled a summary of stories published in 2023 that reflect that ethos to start off your New Year. Happy reading.

Is there an elephant in the room?

Stories develop in myriad ways. The piece “How to Break Up With Your Therapist” emerged from side conversations with friends and colleagues, seemingly unable to speak above a whisper about how it wasn’t working out. When I responded by proposing a piece on the delicate art of saying, “It’s not you, it’s me (or vice-versa),” I kept hearing how useful this would be. We commissioned author Moira Farr to tackle the issue in July 2023. Later that year, in October 2023, The New York Times published a piece on the same topic with a similar headline and sub-headline. We were flattered.

On the subject of things we don’t talk about enough, in March, writer Debra Yearwood wrote about the cringier aspects of a bad funeral (mispronouncing the name of the deceased – egad!) and how different aspects of saying goodbye can support bereavement processes. The delightfully cheeky illustration nails the premise of the article and invites readers into the story.

Serious about series

A collection of linked stories allows us to explore an issue in depth across multiple weeks. We plan these out in advance to permit research, reflection, and writing and to assure stories are up to date with current and emerging information. In November, we published four stories within the theme of Money & Mental Health for Financial Literacy Month. It covers mindsets, housing, economic literacy and empowerment, and the cost of therapy.

Meanwhile, our annual literary series Mental Health for the Holidays embraces some of the tarnish on all the sparkle of the season. We dive into complicated family dynamics with stories of overcoming the more trying aspects of the holidays not always seen in those commercial depictions. The pieces are true tales told with hope and humour.

Lived experiences

The level of detail and nuance that emerges from a personal tale can shed light on a topic profoundly. That was the case with Jessica Ruano’s story about her partner’s suicide. Meanwhile, Florence K – musician, mother, CBC host, and doctoral candidate – took the theme of this year’s Mental Health Week – #MyStory – and shared her personal story of mental health challenges, wellness, and discovery.

On language

When working to reduce stigma, it’s about the stories we tell – and how we tell them. Part of our internal annual review of our style guide looks at language choices. We decided to provide context around these choices in a series called Language Matters. In this way, we can share our rationale outside the organization with the hopes that word will spread. For example, how to phrase language around suicide or the use of drugs, alcohol, or other substances.

Worth revisiting

The following stories – two from our annual literary series Mental Health for the Holidays – all received nominations for the Canadian Online Publishing Awards. Winners are announced in February. In the best column category are Dave Bidini’s piece, Getting Outside to Get Into Your Head and Moira Farr’s essay May Your Days Be Merry and Bright – As Possible, both from 2022. Debra Yearwood’s piece, Putting the Men in Mental Health, received a nod in the Best Service Article category, while The Dread in Your Head – about eco-anxiety – received a nomination for Best Lifestyle Article.

Author: edits The Catalyst. She is the manager of communications at the MHCC.

Our annual literary series touches on the complexities of the season.

Our tagline for The Catalyst is “Conversations on mental health.” This idea is meant as shorthand for our magazine’s purpose and a signal to our readers that the door is open to discuss mental health.

This welcome mat also speaks to the larger mission at the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) to reduce stigma. When we speak openly about challenges, illnesses, problems, and wellness, we recognize that mental health is part of our overall health. Such conversations can be a gateway to meaningful change, and the holiday season feels like an especially good time to tackle the complexities and multitudes of our mental health.

So every December, we run our Mental Health for the Holidays series to touch on the things not seen in those sparkly commercials. The goal is to normalize some of the challenges the holidays can bring and give readers a sense of hope with a touch of humour.

Each year has a subtheme. In 2023, it was Moping, Hoping, and Coping. For 2024, we’re going with Good Tidings, Bad Partings, and New Traditions. While pithy and catchy, our hope is that they also speak to a trajectory of hope and promise through real voices and real stories.

I launched the series in 2022, some months after joining the MHCC as the manager of content and strategic communications. The Catalyst is one part of my portfolio and among the most visible parts of our work at the commission, whose other initiatives include research reports, public engagement, and knowledge translation projects such as guides, tools, courses, and webinars. The Catalyst is designed to be conversational, accessible, and even chatty while covering a gamut of issues, ideas, and research within mental health. It’s a little bit of Psychology Today with a dash of the New Yorker and a good dose of neighbourly advice.

The “recipe” for this annual series is to find stories that bridge the gaps between expectations and realities. It’s people taking their lumps and making honey lemon tea out of lemons, with a side of tin box cookies. They’re narratives about people facing challenges, told without tropes or platitudes.

Finding your way

Authors usually share a personal tale tied to a theme. For example, in 2022, Rheostatics rock band member and West End Phoenix newspaper publisher Dave Bidini wrote about skating, the germination of his memoirs, nostalgia, rinks, and rituals with richly beautiful detail and a certain musicality.

I was grateful that skating had delivered this creative idea to me at the expense of having to relive the stress, pain, and anger that came with reconstructing those times. I’d tried to make art through a discovery of this nostalgia. But nostalgia often uncovers the raw truths of the past while celebrating the best parts of being young and simple and new to the world. 

Read Getting Outside to Get Into Your Head here.

Writer-instructor Moira Farr wrote with a witty self-awareness about navigating the holidays with a mood disorder and aging parents while highlighting the value of small talk.

Comfort and joy don’t just happen. You have to create them, and that requires generosity of spirit (as Scrooge famously learned) instead of going so far inward you can’t see beyond your own navel.

Read May Your Days Be Merry and Bright As Possible here.

Author Debra Yearwood grappled with her complicated relationship with Kwanzaa as she tried to unknot — like so many strands of tree lights — questions of identity and the commercialization of Christmas. Her rhythmic writing rollicks with insights as she wrestles with the emotional toll of holiday traditions and expectations.

Then comes the guilt. I ate way too much. All that butter and sugar. Ugh. I think I can hear my arteries hardening. The familiar commitments to do better follow. Tomorrow I’ll have a salad. . . but then someone invited me out for lunch. Dinner with friends is on for the next day and of course all those friends I haven’t seen in, like, forever. Drinks! Wasn’t that a special bottle of rum! Oh, and the best Côtes du Rhône I’ve had in an age. Recriminations arrive in the morning, delivered in that scathing voice I reserve just for me. Ugh, again! But the see-saw of pleasure and punishment is just getting started.

Read Sugar and Spice and Trying to Be Nice here.

This year

Writer Eleanor Sage tackles a timely subject in “Sister Acts,” where she details her efforts to bring a sibling out of a misinformation rabbit hole in order to recapture some sort of relationship while grieving the connection they once had. Watch for it in our December issue.

Putting this series together feels like a gift and an honour. It’s a delight to coach emerging and established writers, and work with an extraordinary team of authors, editors, digital and web experts, project managers, translators, and illustrators. I hope you enjoy it as much as we enjoy presenting it. Happy holidays.

Author: is the Manager of Communications at the Mental Health Commission of Canada. She hopes to turn this series into a book one day.

The easy-to-remember three-digit number for suicide crises means that people in need of immediate support can call or text for help.

In early November, American actor Mark Duplass wrote about his mental health challenges on Instagram, including hosting a live space to discuss his strategies for coping, a part of which involves “a temporary denial of some of the heavy darkness so that I can focus on the light.”

Duplass, who has appeared in The Morning Show and The Mindy Project, encourages followers to phone the 988 any-time call and messaging service, which began in the U.S. in July 2022. As posts, mentions, articles, and conversations increase, there’s hope that those three digits will become common knowledge like 911.

Canada’s 988 suicide crisis helpline, which launched on November 30, means that people across the country can receive support via phone or text 24 hours a day. Callers will receive bilingual, trauma-informed culturally appropriate support from trained responders. While the service is designed to respond to those at risk of suicide, no one will be turned away. Those seeking to access other mental health supports, may be directed to other services in their area, for example.

“This will save lives,” says Michel Rodrigue, president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). “The 988 service is a vital support and more than just a number — a simple call in a time of crisis can be a turning point. This helpline breaks the silence and offers support to individuals.”

How it works

After texting or dialing 988, callers will receive a brief message to confirm that they have reached the right number. They will then be asked a few basic questions — for example, if they’d like to speak to someone in English or French — after which they’ll be connected with a trained responder in their community who will listen and provide support.

Calls or texts to 988 are confidential. No personally identifiable information will be disclosed or shared outside the 988 network, except as required or permitted by law, or when emergency intervention is needed to support the safety and well-being of the caller or texter, and/or the safety of others. The service is based on collaborative, person-centred approaches that use the least intrusive interventions to increase safety.

The service was established by the federal government and delivered by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). When people call 988, they’ll be supported by a decentralized, community-based service delivered through 39 partner centres and agencies across the country. These include distress centres and crisis lines, national agencies like Kids Help Phone and the Hope for Wellness Helpline, and local organizations such as South Asian Canadians Health and Social Services, an Ontario-based non-profit in Brampton.

The Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region, one of the centres in the 988 helpline network, takes calls from 613 and 343 area codes. Its responders are trained via the internationally recognized, certified suicide prevention model Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training — also known as ASIST.

Its responders take ASIST as part of their 60-hour training, which covers everything from the phone system to active listening to crisis intervention. Kathyrn Leroux, the centre’s manager of media, marketing, and communications, has also taken the training.

She notes that having responders nearby enables 988 organizations to draw on local knowledge when callers need other social or emergency services. In cases where a centre is receiving a “rollover” call — that is, from another community or city when the local lines are at capacity — responders rely on services like 211 – a publicly accessible database of community supports – for referrals. Having these designated rollover services helps to avoid long wait times. Where there is a wait time, callers will receive a message encouraging them to stay on the line or the text thread.

Learning from the U.S.

Concerns about capacity have been part of studies about Canada’s 988 rollout, including those the MHCC raised in a 2021 policy brief. Planners of the 988 launch were able to gain insights on this topic based on experiences in the U.S. and the Netherlands (where the number is 113) ahead of implementation.

Since July 2022, the U.S. has invested nearly $1 billion in the service and has responded to nearly five million contacts. In the first year, it has been able to decrease its average response time from 2 minutes 39 seconds to 41 seconds. Its 988 number is supported by more than 200 local and state-run call centres, and over time has expanded to add text and chat services in Spanish along with specialized services for 2SLGBTQI+ youth. Future developments include video phone access to better serve deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. As the service ramps up, more public campaigns may be on the horizon. A recent USA Today story showed that a year after its implementation, awareness rates (13%) still have a ways to go.

Even with the insights from other countries, Canada’s launch and maintenance of 988 is a complex task. Alongside the country’s vastness, diversity, and principles of inclusion, it needs to deal with technical considerations. To give just one example, the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) had to transition to 10-digit dialing in Newfoundland and Labrador, northern Ontario, and Yellowknife before they could get the 988 number up and running.

People in Canada will start to see information across social media between now and February as the service launches and service providers acclimate. So far, the federal government has allotted $156 million over three years for the service.

As it rolls out, 988 providers will be tracking the number of contacts (calls and texts), wait times, and the abandonment rate – when a caller or texter ends the contact before connecting with a responder – with a view to improving service times.

Say it early, say it often

The phrase “say it early, say it often” serves as shorthand, both for responders and for anyone involved in conversations about suicide. Why? Because it emphasizes an open, straightforward, and non-judgmental dialogue that is at the heart of training initiatives.

“Conversation is important,” Leroux says. “We want to get away from ‘Are you thinking about hurting yourself?’ and ask more straightforward questions such as ‘Are you thinking of suicide?’ and then ‘Have you done anything to harm yourself today?’ Doing that really allows you to focus in and helps people open up. It demonstrates that you are willing to talk about it and talk about it in a straightforward way. It allows you to determine where they are and get people the help they need.”

Distress Centre responders are also trained in crisis de-escalation that uses a range of questions to assist with identifying the scale of the issue and the next steps. No matter the call, the goal is the same, Leroux says: to get people to safety or to a safety plan.

The scale of the issue
Suicide remains a significant public health concern in Canada, affecting individuals of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. It also disproportionately affects certain populations, including girls, men and boys, people serving federal sentences, survivors of suicide loss and suicide attempts, 2SLGBTQI+ groups, and some First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities.

According to Statistics Canada, about 4,500 people in our country die by suicide every year, which is around 12 people a day. And for every person lost to suicide, many more experience suicidal ideation or attempts.

The reasons for suicide are complex: they include biological, psychological, social, cultural, spiritual, economic, and other factors. According to a leading researcher in the field, the people who think about and attempt suicide are seeking an end to deep and intense psychological pain.

When it comes to preventing suicide, how we talk about it matters. Safe, factual, and responsible portrayals and messaging can have a positive impact. When discussing suicide, it’s also important to include any preventive actions taken, convey narratives that demonstrate hope and resilience about recovery, and mention the resources available for help and support.

Societal shifts
And as we learn more about suicide, the conversation is shifting. The Senate standing committee on social affairs, science, and technology’s recent update to the federal framework for suicide prevention included recommendations to:

  • recognize the impact of substance use on suicide prevention
  • fund research into interventions
  • create a nationwide database to better collect national data related to suicides, attempts, and effective prevention measures
  • replace the concepts of “hope and resilience” with “meaning and connectedness.”

This shift in language also resonates with other perspectives; for example, the terms life promotion and wellness, which many Indigenous communities use when discussing suicide prevention. The First Nations Mental Wellness Continuum Framework — developed by the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation with Indigenous and non-Indigenous partners — identifies hope, meaning, belonging, and purpose as underpinning many Indigenous ways of knowing. As the framework explains, aligning these four aspects in a person’s everyday life brings that person a feeling of wholeness that protects them and acts as a buffer against mental health risks and potential suicidal behaviours.

Moira Farr has also noticed a change in the conversation since After Daniel: A Suicide Survivor’s Tale was published in 1999 — a book that delves into the death of her partner. Farr is a journalist and an instructor who researches and writes on a variety of topics for international and national publications.

“I would say there has definitely been a shift in people’s willingness to openly discuss mental health issues, including suicide, in the past 20 years,” she says. “The campaigns to raise awareness about how and where to get help and to get people talking more honestly about their own mental health struggles seem to me to have been a positive force.”

By promoting understanding and empathy, we can create an environment where people feel safe and comfortable discussing their mental health challenges. This includes recognizing that seeking help is a sign of strength — not weakness — and that mental health is just as important as physical health.

“The new helpline underlines the reality and importance of suicide prevention,” Rodrigue says. “It speaks to the fact that suicide is a significant public health issue that affects people of all ages and backgrounds — and can be prevented. This is a collective effort that will help to reach more people in Canada to support their well-being.”

Fateema Sayani is the manager of content & strategic communications at the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Tools and resources

  • If you are thinking about suicide, or worried about someone else thinking about suicide, call or text 988 for suicide prevention support, any time of day or night.
  • The Hope for Wellness Helpline continues to provide immediate non-judgmental, culturally competent, trauma-informed emotional support, crisis intervention, or referrals to community-based services for Indigenous Peoples. You can reach Hope for Wellness by calling 1-855-242-3310.
  • Children and young adults in Canada in need of mental health support and crisis services can continue to contact Kids Help Phone by calling 1-800-668-6868 or texting CONNECT to 686868 from anywhere in Canada, at any time.
  • Non-crisis support. Tip sheet: Where to Get Care — A Guide to Navigating Public and Private Mental Health Services in Canada.
  • Resources: Suicide Prevention (MHCC)
  • Postvention Resources: Postvention activities are crucial for helping those affected by suicide (e.g., those bereaved after suicide loss) and for reducing the risk of further suicides or crises.
  • Further reading: Surviving Suicide Loss.
Author: is the Manager of Communications at the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

In this fourth and final piece in the series, we explore the costs of therapy and the financial decisions people make when seeking help.

When Affordable Therapy Network founder Katie McCowan was in her final year of therapist training, she started experiencing mental health challenges and decided to seek therapy.

“I was in school, working as a waitress, not making a lot of money. So I found myself Googling ‘affordable therapy options Ontario,’” she says, referring to her inspiration for launching the Canada-wide online database in 2015. To meet her needs, she used one option (provided by her school) at $40 per session and also tried a private therapist at $140. But while the private sessions were helpful, they cost her a day’s wages. “$40 was affordable, but I wasn’t able to choose my therapist, and therapeutic fit is very important.”

McCowan realized that this was a common challenge and thought, “What if I built a website and listed therapists who offer lower rates so people can connect with them?” She began with her esteemed colleagues, since new graduates often charge less. Word spread. The network grew. And during the pandemic, demand exploded.

The website now lists more than 550 vetted therapists, all with sliding-scale fee options and about half offering subsidized spots at $65 or less (including some pay-what-you-can and pro bono options). “A wide variety of therapists list with us, and most offer a certain number of low-cost spots, maybe five or so, that are subsidized.”

While these lower-cost rates tend to be less than half the price of private therapy, considering today’s socio-economic realities, “I know that’s a stretch for a lot of people,” she says. Still, McCowan acknowledges that fees in the private industry are fair and appropriate. “Therapists don’t charge more than they should. There is extensive training, extensive supervision, and it’s quite challenging work.”

Financial insecurity and therapy
If you feel that life seems more expensive lately, you’re right. According to the Canadian Social Survey on quality of life and cost of living, the consumer price index rose 6.8 per cent in 2022 — the biggest jump in forty years — with costs for food (up 8.9 per cent), shelter (up 6.9 per cent), and transportation (up 10.6 per cent) increasing the most.

Such pressures have had a mental health impact on many people. Half of our population has been affected by “inflation, the economy and financial insecurity,” according to a post-pandemic survey from Mental Health Research Canada (MHRC), and are “showing signs of worsening mental health.” In fact, since the previous year’s poll, this group reported “higher self-rated anxiety (33%) and depression (32%), higher suicide ideation (31%) and alcohol (23%) or cannabis dependency (22%),” among other issues.

Indeed, not only can financial stress impact mental health, it can affect decisions about therapy and other mental health resources. In Canada, psychotherapy and psychology services may be covered (in part or completely) by private health insurance, such as insurance plans provided by an employer, or purchased directly by an individual. Mental health service providers offer more specialized care, which ranges depending on the severity of the issue. Certain services need a doctor’s referral, while some are self-directed and available online or by phone or text message. Others are public (funded by governments) or provided by charities, community groups, and other organizations. The Canadian Mental Health Association, for example, has branch offices to direct people to support, including free counselling provided in some of its 70 regions in 330 communities across Canada.

CMHA programs are “culturally safe and meaningful,” which is significant when looking at the impact of financial insecurity on mental health and access to supports, including therapy, for various populations. To cite just one example, the MHRC survey found that racialized persons, people from 2SLGBTQI+ communities, young adults (ages 18 to 34), students, and those who are unemployed, have low incomes, or are in financial trouble are more likely to report high levels of anxiety.

Fee scales to improve access
To help clients get access to mental health services, the Calgary Counselling Centre has had a sliding fee scale since it opened in 1962, says CEO Robbie Babins-Wagner, who is also an adjunct professor and special instructor at the University of Calgary.

“We have to make sure we meet the needs of vulnerable people, including those vulnerable financially because of health issues, mental health problems, or other social issues,” says Dr. Babins-Wagner, whose passion is “clinical practice and making sure clients get the results they deserve.” Babins-Wagner and her team employ scientific, data-driven research methods and tools, including “session-by-session” outcome measurement (with questionnaire tools in 24 languages) and financial modelling. “We use that data to try and understand how we’re helping people and improve what we’re doing.”

The centre assigns new clients to a counsellor “no later than noon the next day” after receiving a request and uses no formal means testing. “We ask a client what their income is, and we trust them,” she explains. “When a client says they can’t afford the suggested fee, we say, ‘Your counsellor will discuss that with you; the fees are not a barrier to service.’ The counsellor has the discretion to bring it down to, generally, as low as $8 an hour, but if necessary, we’ll bring it lower. We truly don’t want fees to be a barrier.”

The centre collects this data, Babins-Wagner says, “because we want to understand what’s happening for clients and where the pain points are.” Through an internal process using blind data, every time there’s a fee change, we “look at what the suggested fee was, what the client could afford. Then we put that in our database and run that data to see whether clients from certain income groups are struggling more than others and if we need to make changes. Those are the kind of changes we typically make to the fee scale, and we test it to see if it’s achieving the intended benefit, which is meeting client needs.”

With the economic challenges Calgary has endured since late 2014, she says the centre now reviews its fee scale every year or two instead of every five years “because we know we can’t wait, and people are being more impacted than we’ve seen historically. So, we use data and current conditions to look at these factors.”

Finding a way
Dr. Elana Bloom, psychologist and director of campus wellness and support services at Concordia University agrees that “navigating mental health resources can be challenging.” While her expertise isn’t related to affordability per se, she understands the issue based on her clinical practice and is familiar with the mental health resources in her province, particularly for the student population.

“In Quebec, individuals (including young adults) can access mental health and psychosocial services, including psychotherapy and crisis supports, at CIUSSSs” [integrated university health and social service centres and community-based organizations]. At Concordia, we offer an array of mental health services, including wellness programming and psychotherapy with counsellors and psychotherapists. If you’re not able to access services or resources in a timely manner, if there’s a wait-list, another option is to seek services privately.”

Dr. Bloom advocates an “expansive view of wellness and well-being” — where seeing a therapist may be part of a broader wellness strategy that can include self-care, social interactions, physical well-being — and “leveraging technology” to make the most of self-directed mental health tools and resources. “Being a psychologist myself, I believe in the positive impact of psychology and in seeing a therapist,” she says. “But I also think mental health is more than just meeting with a psychologist; it’s important to take care of our own mental health and well-being using many different resiliency-based strategies beyond going to see a psychologist or therapist.”

She also notes that services are available to meet the particular needs of specific populations, such as Indigenous, 2SLGBTQI+, and African, Caribbean, and Black individuals.

Therapy 2.0?
While young people (and the rest of us) are increasingly living their lives online — and this extends to therapy — not all mental health apps are the same. For example, people’s personal data has been shared for marketing purposes and, in one case, a crisis line number in an app was wrong. The Mental Health Commission of Canada discovered that error when consulting with young people to develop Canada’s first e-mental health strategy to improve e-mental health solutions, which will be released in early 2024.

To make sure mental health apps are evidence-informed and safe, the commission also launched a Mental Health App Assessment Framework. App developers, designers, and owners can use it to assess their apps and improve their safety, quality, and effectiveness. The framework includes information as well on safety, social responsibility, and equity and outlines the perspectives of diverse groups, ages, and populations.

In addition to digital options, McCowan says talking to your family doctor can also be important. “I think it’s easy to fall into a spiral where it feels like there’s no way out. Checking in with someone, having an outside perspective, someone offering you any kind of resources, any kind of support is super helpful.”

 Resource: Where to Get Care — A Guide to Navigating Public and Private Mental Health Services in Canada.

 Further reading: How to Break Up With Your Therapist.

Read the entire Money & Mental Health series.

Author: is a writer, journalist, and creative content and communications professional who is passionate about learning, storytelling, and inspiring others.

A lack of economic awareness or control over one’s finances can have long-term impacts. We look at the link between intimate partner violence and money in the third article of our series for Financial Literacy Month.

At the start of her marriage, Margaret Williams (a pseudonym) was perfectly OK letting her husband take the lead and do all the planning around their finances and work lives.

“He told me it was best for the family if I raised the kids and worked part time doing admin tasks for his company,” Williams said. “And so, basically what happened was that I wasn’t gaining any marketable skills. He saw to everything regarding the finances. I didn’t find out till later that all the things he did were advantageous to him.”

By “later” she means when her husband’s physical and mental abuse had pushed her to a breaking point — and she was thinking of leaving the marriage.

“When everything escalated, he threatened to take all his money out of the joint account,” she says. “Since he was the only one officially working, that was all of our money.

“And that’s exactly what happened after I ended the marriage,” Williams adds. “I was left with nothing.”

But emptying the joint account wasn’t the end of the economic abuse. After the divorce, her ex-husband not only refused to pay all the court-ordered child support, he also damaged her credit history and left her with little choice but to rack up debt on a family member’s line of credit.

Coercive control
Unfortunately, such stories are all too common. While people often think of intimate partner violence (IPV) in physical, sexual, and emotional terms, economic abuse also occurs in an estimated 99 per cent of IPV cases.

Economic abuse can make it especially difficult for the person being targeted to leave their situation. It’s also a significant barrier to a survivor’s recovery and positive mental health outcomes.

“If you don’t have the financial resources to obtain mental health services, your recovery is going to take much longer than it otherwise would,” says Dr. Kristina Nikolova, whose research at the University of Windsor focuses on economic abuse. Yet, despite its damaging effects, supporting those who are subjected to it is an often neglected issue in Canada.

“We have good shelters, good food banks, emergency support systems, and crisis lines,” says Meseret Haileyesus, CEO and founder of the Canadian Center for Women’s Empowerment (CCFWE). “But survivors also need a strong economic empowerment program.” To meet this need, the CCFWE offers several resources, including financial literacy workshops and checklists for financial abuse survivors, and also advocates for systemic change — which starts by raising awareness.

“This form of violence has not really been defined properly in Canada,” notes Haileyesus, “When it is, it’s usually divided into three parts, starting with economic control: deliberately restricting access to bank accounts, communication, and transportation but also to work, education, and training.”

The second part is economic exploitation, which may involve physical destruction (e.g., houses, cars) or destroying a partner’s finances by gambling, overspending, or drawing out expensive custody and divorce proceedings. “With economic exploitation, the perpetrator might rack up debt in the name of the victim,” says Nikolova. “Technically, we do have fraud legislation for this, but in an intimate relationship it’s very hard to prove whose debt it actually is.”

The third part is employment sabotage, a deliberate pattern of keeping victims from working by withholding transportation, confining them, or stalking them at work. According to Nikolova, because employers are often unaware of economic abuse, they tend to blame absenteeism or poor performance on the victim, even though it can stem directly from IPV.

Meseret Haileyesus

Meseret Haileyesus

“In Ontario, workplaces are supposed to have guidance and safety protocols for dealing with domestic violence, but people rarely receive that training,” she says. “As a result, it often isn’t recognized unless somebody shows up screaming and yelling and wielding a weapon. That’s the only form in which the victim might actually get some leeway and not lose her job because of the abuse.”

Other researchers in the field and people with lived experience of economic abuse suggest that employers, in a sense, collude with the abuser, even if unwittingly. Throughout her separation and divorce, Williams says her experience led her to believe that the courts have little understanding of economic abuse, which makes it easy for abusers to exploit the system.

“I always expected that, when things went south, the law and the courts would protect the well-being of children,” she says. “I believed that but had no idea that this is absolutely not the reality whatsoever. I’m really sad to say that this isn’t the society I would hope for my kids to have one day.”

Systemic change
Although Canada’s Divorce Act was revised in 2021 to acknowledge the role financial abuse plays in gender inequity, the overarching system needs an overhaul to make any significant difference. For example, Williams says that family responsibility offices are toothless when it comes to enforcing child-support payments — at least in her province.

There’s also significant room for improvement when it comes to people’s awareness of economic abuse, from housing to health care. According to the CCFWE, roughly two-thirds of social and health-care workers have no training in screening for economic abuse, which is why the organization has launched a screening tool for service providers.

But the biggest impact would probably come from the financial industry, since it’s where the vast majority of economic abuse occurs. “In Australia and the United Kingdom, programs are now set up in banks to help victims of economic abuse,” says Haileyesus, referring to recent initiatives that make it easier for survivors to access credit and private personal bank accounts.

Earlier this year, one British bank changed its app to allow users to mute the messages that accompany money transfers, so they can avoid seeing any threats abusers might send with alimony or child support payments. While that may sound like a minor change, compared with repairing damaged credit, it’s an instructive example of the many systemic gaps and oversights that allow economic abuse to continue, even after a relationship has ended.

Unfortunately, banks in Canada still have a lot to learn in this area. “Simply put,” Haileyesus says, “due to a lack of awareness and a lack of policy, our banking system is not designed to help these victims.” Earlier this fall, the CCFWE launched a national scorecard on economic abuse that included policy recommendations targeting the financial sector. 

For Nikolova, these gaps have immediate real-world repercussions on survivors that hinder recovery and positive mental health outcomes. According to her research, this is especially so for Indigenous and African, Caribbean, and Black women, who typically suffer greater discrimination from the legal, health-care, and financial systems. “We now measure financial stress as one of the assessments with survivors to see how that’s impacting them, and we have found that it’s very highly correlated with things like anxiety, depression, and worsening PTSD symptoms,” she says. “We are seeing that even five or 10 years after a relationship has ended, women who have experienced economic abuse are still at a lower socio-economic status than their peers.”

Williams continues to deal with her ex-husband’s put-downs and ongoing financial abuse several years after being apart. “He always says I’ll never make it on my own, which certainly isn’t the case,” she says. “It’s almost like the abuse continues and adds insult to prior injury, so you’re not able to just focus on healing and getting your life back in order, which is hard since I’m trying so hard to be in rebuild mode.”

Despite these challenges, Williams is confident that her newfound commitment to independence — something she wants to model for her kids — will make it possible for her to recover from the economic abuse. It’s that hope that gets her through the daily struggle of balancing work, parenting, retraining for a new career, and dealing with the courts.

Further reading: The Day I Decided to Leave: The Catalyst

Resource: Support services from across Canada from the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

Author: is a researcher and writer in Toronto specializing in cultural history, food, progressive politics, intersectional technology, and public spaces.
Inset: Meseret Haileyesus, CEO and founder of the Canadian Center for Women’s Empowerment.

The lack of housing options brings its own kind of homesick feeling. We look at the link between housing and health in the second of the series for Financial Literacy Month.

I recently received an all-too-familiar mass text from a friend: “Do you know anyone moving out of a 2-bedroom? Our landlord got a permit to renovate, and we have to be out asap.”

Unfortunately, leads are hard to come by. This is Halifax. While it has an easygoing seaside city reputation, the rental market is giving off a different vibe. With no real solutions, I texted my friend back with good luck wishes, knowing very well that it wasn’t going to help.

If it could, I would ship it in great quantities to Canada’s largest province, where an Ontario Chamber of Commerce housing report found that 1.85 million units would be needed — beyond what’s already in the development pipeline — to restore housing affordability.

These massive numbers loom large for Canada’s young people — a cohort I am part of as a university student looking at my future. For many, faith in an affordable future has been shaken. Yet those with a more optimistic outlook are seeking ways to find agency and new ways of living.

Head, heart, house
A home is more than just a house; its psychological value far surpasses its four walls. It’s about reliability and routine, says Madeleine Hebert, who works as a senior housing specialist with Happy Cities, an urban planning, design, and research consulting firm in Vancouver.

“What’s most challenging for mental health is when affordability causes renters to live in more transient situations,” she says. “We’ve found a really strong link between how long you live in a place, your ability to build social connections, and a sense of belonging and meaning. Forming roots is difficult for renters in cities with little housing security from private landlords, who can ask them to leave at any time.”

Affordability pressures push people to make tough life decisions like leaving their communities, finding a new home for a pet, or moving in with a partner sooner than they’d like.

“There’s a huge variety of needs for different people,” Hebert notes, citing availability and affordability as key needs when looking at housing. “Choice gets removed from the equation for many lower-income renters, and that’s where we start to see mental health struggles.”

It’s this lack of affordable options that intersects with other barriers people face. Valery Navarrete experienced the crux of it in 2022. That was the year her mother died. Her mom had been the primary caregiver for Navarrete’s brother, who lives in Toronto and has a serious mental illness and substance use issues. When Navarrete started looking for supportive or subsidized housing options for her brother, she hit a wall.

“If you’re lucky enough to find something, there is no guarantee it will be close to the person’s medical and personal support,” she says. Navarrete is a consultant for nonprofit organizations and has spent decades working in health policy and advocacy. She has also produced a podcast about communal housing models. But while she understands the access points and barriers, this knowledge is up against the reality of the demand. Wait-lists for supportive housing in Toronto are in the double digits — 14 years — leaving her family without options. Her brother is currently in family care with a support person who is elderly. So, the situation is not long-term.

“Most families are not in a place where they can afford long-term medicalized options,” Navarrete says, “and many people want to preserve their autonomy.” For her, Canada needs more public housing — and fast.

As people grapple with the high cost of living, calls for more affordable housing are getting louder and becoming an election issue in Canada. At the same time, long wait times for systemic change in the face of immediate housing needs are spurring new models and reviving old ones.

Diana Lind offers details on co-living models and micro-house communities in Brave New Home: Our Future in Smarter, Simpler, Happier Housing. Her 2020 book focuses largely on New York City, first looking back at epic growth in the 19th century, through tenement models, and finally into Airbnb and other temporary forms. In Lind’s view, the single-family unit we are socialized to aspire to is unsustainable. Just entering the market requires a large investment, and the units themselves have an inefficient use of space. For many people today, that white picket fence has become an image from another era. And Lind believes that the time has come to give up the American dream of a house with a two-car garage. Not only are they overpriced and lonely, other housing models would be better at helping us live together as communities, given that many people live alone, marry later in life, have smaller families, and are more virtual and mobile. In other words, housing models are lagging behind our current needs.

Hebert speaks of one such project, which Happy Cities calls “co-housing lite.” Tomo on Main in Vancouver is a housing model without major upfront costs (and with “tomo” standing for “together more”). The complex houses 12 families under one roof with a common structure and courtyard. The smaller individually owned units leave room for large common spaces, including a shared kitchen, dining room, and living room. Shared meals are available three times a week, with residents rotating kitchen duties, and multiple committees making various self-governing decisions.

“It’s about building mutual support and helping people take care of each other,” Hebert says, “and the benefits are significant,” noting that such buildings have high retention rates and stronger communal ties. “People also tend to feel a greater sense of ownership and take better care of the spaces,” she adds. “Neighbours who have better relationships settle disputes more easily among themselves.”

Getting older
As we age, our housing needs also change based on compounding factors, from mobility to health to loneliness, and more of us are living longer. According to Statistics Canada the number of people 85 and older has been steadily increasing as a share of the total population over time. In 1971, 139,000 people in Canada were over 85; by 2021, it was more than six times that at 871,400. Projections show that between 2031 and 2050, this cohort will grow even further as baby boomers enter their golden years. Will they do so with their typical countercultural leanings and independence?

One model leans that way. NORCs — that is, naturally occurring retirement communities — have been growing in popularity. The term designates a street block or apartment building that happens to house a large population of older adults. These communities can include support services such as health, social, and recreational activities, which may be offered through public or private funding or a combination of the two. The reasons for each vary and can include the desire or inability to maintain a single-family home, economic pressures, or a wish to be closer to people and amenities. They’re a promising option for building a community while letting people maintain their independence and receive support.

Having a place to call home is key to our stability and building a foundation for life. The connection to mental health is also undeniable, as the Housing First movement demonstrated. Its underlying principle — that people can better move forward with their lives if they are first housed — allows them to invest in their social, occupational, employment, and recreational activities to support recovery, and well-being, and stem the cycle of homelessness.

In fact, the Housing First model was found to be the most effective way of reducing homelessness. This was a key finding of the At Home/Chez Soi study launched by the Mental Health Commission of Canada in 2008. The four-year, five-city project aimed to provide practical, meaningful support to Canadians experiencing homelessness and mental health problems.

What’s next?
I’d like to say that we’re all in this together, but clearly some of us are more in crisis than others. Housing isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation, and one’s sense of housing security can shift based on life circumstances. We’ll need a range of housing options to ensure we can address a diversity of needs – without relying on luck alone. Until that happens, I may still feel cynical at times. But with new options to housing affordability becoming available, I’ll also try to stay hopeful when I text my friends back.

Further reading: Money & Mental Health series

Elsewhere in The Catalyst: Home Alone: Aging Without Support is Becoming More Prevalent for Older People in Canada. How Can We Stem the Tide?

Author: studies humanities and psychology at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Uncertain financial futures are taking a toll on our mental health. We look at the link in this series kickoff for Financial Literacy Month.

Everyone has a money complex. And it’s a mindset that may be intensely volatile — suddenly flaring up to overpower all else — or cool and calculated like an uninterrupted stream of data points. Contemporary psychologists tell us that beliefs about money develop mostly in adolescence — they take shape around the examples offered by those who raised us and bear on our financial present. At a time when the cost of living is at an all-time high, it’s worth asking: Is your money mindset still working for you?

Many of us live in a different financial situation than we did growing up, but nothing puts our money scripts to the test like the turbulence of new responsibilities and unexpected changes. Of course, we can’t simply wish our way out of an affordability crisis. The high cost of living has added a very real burden to our food, housing, health, and mental health expenses, particularly for communities that experience health and social inequities. These include rural and remote, newcomer, racialized, and 2SLGBTQI+ communities; people experiencing precarious work and housing; individuals with disabilities or serious mental illness; single parents, unpaid caregivers, and others. And there is an interconnected relationship between financial and food insecurity, housing unaffordability and our mental health and well-being.

The connection
When financial stress replaces stability, it can dash the futures we imagined for ourselves. Summertime polling from Mental Health Research Canada (MHRC) found that financial stressors are greatly impacting the mental health and well-being of people in Canada. In the study, conducted online with 3,819 adults, 39 per cent said economic issues were affecting their mental health, and 41 per cent who were going through financial challenges reported having had thoughts of suicide.

The number of respondents who paid out of pocket for mental health services due to insufficient benefits coverage also rose from 23 per cent in May to 30 per cent in August. As well, 29 per cent said an inability to pay was why they didn’t access mental health care despite needing it, an 11 per cent increase from the previous MHRC polls.

Election issue
Given these findings, it’s hardly surprising that affordability is shaping up to be a major election issue in Canada. After all, no matter what your specific circumstances are, it’s likely to affect your life. To delve into its impacts on mental health, we spoke to financial planner Natasha Knox, principal of Alaphia Financial Wellness in Vancouver. Knox serves on the board of directors of the Financial Therapy Association, a member organization comprising financial and mental health professionals that integrate cognitive, behavioural, relational, and financial aspects of well-being. Knox uses various strategies to help her clients uncover their own internal narratives and the needs they are trying to fulfil. For instance, asking questions such as, “If you could explain your current situation to a younger version of yourself, how would you describe the way you got here?”

Natasha Knox

Natasha Knox

In different ways, her clients’ answers bring out their money scripts. Among the most common are money status (equating self-worth with net worth), money focus (seeing money as the true key to happiness over other life factors), money vigilance (constant planning that may lead to security and/or anxiety), and money avoidance (the belief that money is bad, the confirmation of which may lead to sabotaging one’s financial future).

Whether you recognize one or more of these scripts in yourself or other people, we are all affected by the influence of money and economic life — no matter how we respond.

Margaret Landry has now come to realize that first-hand. After graduating from Dalhousie University’s film studies program, she had a promising start in the growing East Coast film industry. But after the TV and movie writer’s strike caused many productions to pull out of the province, she found herself with little work. It was as a result of this change that she started re-examining her childhood and current experiences and began feeling a sense of scarcity and avoidance about money.

“I wouldn’t look at the numbers. I would live frugally, but I wasn’t budgeting. I didn’t want to think about how much it costs to live. But in my attempt to suppress it, I found the anxiety seeping into everything I did.” While working through these thoughts, Landry is trying to adapt her career to the changing labour conditions.

Articles on finances often focus on the small cuts people can make — think of all the advice about going without lattes and avocado toasts — but as many point out, such a narrow focus overlooks the various systemic issues that can affect people’s finances.

In terms of tracking and budgeting tactics, which can be found on the internet and via apps, Knox tries not to be prescriptive, since no matter what a client chooses, it needs to suit their situation. “It can be down to the penny or broad categories you track monthly,” she says. “You try stuff to see what sticks because different things work for different people.” Her preferred advice is for clients to stick with it: “Commit for a month, and if you don’t like it, that doesn’t mean you can’t budget; it just means you haven’t yet found the right method that works for you.” Knox notes that the baseline of financial literacy is “all over the map” but points to GetSmarterAboutMoney.ca and the McGill personal finance course as helpful, accessible resources to increase knowledge during Financial Literacy Month or any time of the year.

Learning and looking ahead
After the public-health emergency phase of the pandemic, people in Canada are facing unique economic challenges that are affecting their mental health. The country’s current high cost of living has increased financial insecurity, pressures on food and housing affordability, and income inequality. Inflation and the rising cost of borrowing are also adding up. In 2022, Canada’s average non-mortgage debt reached over $21,000.

Financial security and mental health have always existed in relationship with one another: not only are negative mental health outcomes more prevalent at lower income levels, but mental health problems and illnesses can lead to financial insecurity. In this context, even if you find a budgeting and tracking method that works for you, you may still feel in over your head and need to seek help through a credit counsellor.

Our Money & Mental Health series touches on themes related to housing, the cost of accessing mental health benefits, and financial empowerment, with one story a week in November. Find them at The Catalyst: Conversations on Mental Health, where you can also sign up for our newsletter.

Author: studies humanities and psychology at the University of King’s College in Halifax.

How to start the conversation

When celebrated children’s author Robert Munsch began to struggle with his mental health, the first step toward wellness was the simplest. It was also the toughest.

“The stigma attached to mental illness kept me from going for help for 20 years,” he said. In a 2013 conversation with the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), Munsch spoke about his long struggle with the stigma around mental illness, prior to his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and his related dependence on alcohol.

That first step of “going to talk to someone” was a “no-brainer,” he explained, but it required an enormous amount of courage because of the negative stereotypes toward mental illness. “It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter how good you are. You can have a problem. Being open and having a support group is vital to beating it.”

For people who live with mental and substance use disorders, being open about mental health can definitely help. But building understanding and reducing stigma more generally is also crucial for helping them get the care they need without hesitation.

Stigma is a pervasive problem
A 2022 poll conducted by Leger found stigma to be a pervasive problem for people living with mental or substance use disorders in Canada: 95 per cent reported experiencing stigma in the past five years, while 72 per cent reported experiencing “self-stigma” (internalizing negative prejudices). Perhaps more tellingly, the survey found that people in Canada “expect individuals with mental health or substance use disorders to be devalued and discriminated against in their day-to-day lives.”

Survey respondents also cited stigma reduction as one of three main priorities for improving recovery and access to care (alongside greater access to care and more preventive mental health services). Clearly, reducing stigma and all of its negative effects is a crucial step in giving those who experience mental health and substance use problems the care they deserve.

Why it matters
The MHCC’s Opening Minds training division was developed for just that reason: to reduce discrimination resulting from negative attitudes around mental illness and substance use. It’s now the largest systemic effort dedicated to reducing stigma in the country. Since it began in 2009, almost a million people in Canada have been trained in at least one of the Opening Minds courses or programs. That number continues to grow as workplaces, classrooms, and companies (large and small) recognize the importance of fostering a psychologically healthy and safe environment.

As an organization, the MHCC has deep expertise with the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the Standard), which was developed and launched in 2013 to provide guidelines on how to promote mental health and recognize and support those experiencing mental health concerns or illnesses. While more and more organizations are recognizing the benefits of psychological health and safety, many don’t know where to start. In such cases, one of the best foundations for building such a culture is Opening Minds training.

Opening Minds training also includes Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), The Working Mind (TWM), and The Inquiring Mind (TIM) programs. With so many people, organizations, and communities across the country taking part, you may already be one of their graduates (and even have the certification on your LinkedIn profile).

People who have participated in Opening Minds programs feel more confident and empowered when talking with someone experiencing a mental health problem or crisis. Firefighter Steve Jones said he felt that he’d saved more lives as a trainer with The Working Mind — First Responders program than in his 20 years of experience in the job.

Mental Health First Aid
MHFA is similar to regular first aid: It trains people on how to provide immediate help for someone experiencing a mental health problem or crisis until appropriate treatment can be found.

While it can prevent a current difficulty from becoming more serious, it also has wider benefits. Evidence shows that MHFA reduces stigma, increases understanding of mental crises signs and symptoms, and gives participants the confidence to approach a person who is experiencing such a problem.

MHFA participants have said the program changed them for the better by making them more empathetic and understanding toward people experiencing mental health problems.

The Working Mind and The Inquiring Mind
TWM’s evidence-based courses are designed to reduce stigma in the workplace. Along with the standard TWM course, versions tailored for people working in the first responder, health care, legal, and sports sectors are also available.

The course has been adopted by corporate, non-profit, and government organizations across the country, with more than 260,000 people trained so far.

Participants and trainers have also found that TWM has increased their empathy and understanding and has also had an immediate positive effect on their workplaces.

TIM is an adaptation of TWM to suit university or college settings.

Simple communication
Now, the Opening Minds website has re-launched, with a new, simplified design and a web portal that make it easier to browse courses or conduct searches based on specific criteria. Users will also be able to view detailed course outlines and facilitator profiles while keeping track of their own learning history.

These enhancements will enable the MHCC to continue working toward ensuring that everyone can expect a workplace or learning environment that values and supports their psychological safety. The more streamlined and efficient format will also help Opening Minds continue its leadership in delivering evidence-based programs to reduce stigma.

Getting past stigma, his own and others, has made all the difference for Munsch.

“People have to realize that mental illness is something wrong with the way our brains work, and there are various things now that you can treat it with.”

Resource: The new Opening Minds website

Author: has been writing professionally for over 20 years in journalism and communications. A graduate of Carleton University’s bachelor of arts and Algonquin’s journalism programs, he has worked as a reporter and editor for daily, weekly, and community newspapers. He is a writer with the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Navigating stigma, grief, and loss and finding healing, hope, and community support after a death by suicide. A personal story.

Each November, people around the world take part in special events to mark International Day for People Impacted by Suicide. Those directly affected by suicide loss often use this day to remember loved ones and share their stories and experiences. Here is just one. Names have been changed for privacy reasons.

Rachel died by suicide on June 15, 2022, six weeks after her 30th birthday. I had known her for just over a year. We had been neighbours, then close friends, then briefly lovers. My relationship with her, though affectionate, was fraught with conflict and I have felt immense guilt for my self-perceived role in her death, for not being the partner she needed me to be, for not loving her the way she needed to be loved. 

I’m sharing my story because suicide continues to carry an immense stigma, and loved ones who remain can feel isolated in their grief.

As with any tragedy, suicide reaches far beyond the act itself; its ripples are extensive. I think about the many people who have been, and will likely continue to be, affected by Rachel’s death: her best friend, who discovered her in her home two days after she died; her colleagues, who valued her for far more than her productivity and perfectionism; members of her biological and chosen families, who reached out to me on Facebook, searching for answers in the weeks following her death; her transgender teen cousin, who looked up to Rachel as a queer role model and confidante; and her ex-partner, Nigel, with whom she had had a nine-year relationship and who bore the unenviable responsibility of selling the home they co-owned and sorting through all her personal belongings. 

Joy and Jessica Ruano.

Joy and Jessica Ruano.

Honest conversations
When I heard about Rachel’s death, my first thought went to my daughter Joy, who was not quite two and a half years old at the time. Joy had known Rachel for half of her short life, and their beautiful bond included visits to the Canada Agricultural Museum farm and sitting on her lap to play piano together. As a solo parent raising a young child during a worldwide pandemic, I was grateful to have Rachel as one of the few people I trusted to care for Joy.

I believe in being transparent and truthful with children. So I told Joy as soon as she asked that we wouldn’t be seeing Rachel anymore because she had died, that it was very sad, and that we were going to miss her and it was okay to talk about it.

The following week, we visited with several of our former neighbours, many of whom came out to sit with me and Joy in sadness and solidarity. I answered their questions, as many of them were still very much in the dark regarding the circumstances of Rachel’s death. Yet a new awkwardness and a weighty cheerlessness hung over our little cul-de-sac. The previous year, I had hosted Junkyard Symphony, an environmentally conscious percussion group, in the middle of the street. It was one of many events that spoke to the atmosphere and culture: a place where the kids would always come out and play together, where the neighbours didn’t mind if Joy picked and ate the tomatoes right from their front yard, and where we knew all the names of the dogs and the cats (even the tortoise, Miguel) who lived there. Rachel adored this community, which she lovingly referred to as Sesame Street, and her little house she had wanted to live in forever. 

After two weeks off, I tried to go back to work. For brief periods, I was able to focus on the tasks at hand; other times, I found myself staring into space. Often, I felt raw, on the brink of crying, or having a panic attack — my emotions volatile. I did what I could, then requested more time off with the support of my family doctor. But knowing where to direct my energy and how to find healing was hard. The people who had been showing up for me in the first few days and weeks were quickly dispersing, moving on with their lives as people do. Then, some of my close friends stopped talking to me. Most made excuses about being busy, even though before Rachel’s death we regularly got together, and one actually sent me an email citing Rachel’s suicide as one of the main reasons she needed to take a “break” from our friendship. This was a hard blow, as my relationship to my immediate family was strained, so I yearned for the support of my chosen family during this time. 

Finding support
In mid-August, feeling lost and very much alone in my grief, I reached out to Bereaved Families of Ontario and started attending their Thursday afternoon support group over Zoom. I also attended an LGBTQ2S+ Death Café hosted by the Home Hospice Association on Tuesday evenings, which focused on political questions around death, dying, and illness as they pertain to the queer community; for example, relying on chosen family rather than non-supportive biological family. I started listening to Paula Fontenelle’s Understand Suicide podcast, which recently reached 100 episodes.

These were the voices I needed to hear: people who were willing to push through their discomfort with death and suicide to talk about their feelings openly, whether the loss was last month or several years ago. I found myself thinking outside my own grief to empathize with the man who lost his wife of fifty years to cancer, with the young woman who lost her father in a politically charged murder, with the people who had suffered multiple losses over the years and felt utterly destabilized by the repeated blows. I knew I was not alone in my experience, though it often felt that way, and connecting with other people, even strangers I might never meet outside the virtual world, helped me remember that. 

Through all this, I wanted to make sure I was being a consistent parent for Joy. A friend of mine asked me recently how I managed to keep it together over the past year, and my best answer was simply Joy — you don’t have the option to fall apart when your child needs you. At least, I didn’t. I couldn’t. 

But it wasn’t easy. Joy frequently brought up Rachel — the places they went together, games they would play, and items in our home — like kitchen utensils or pieces of clothing — that reminded her of Rachel. I always tried to respond positively, even though it sometimes pained me to hear about her. One night, Joy woke up screaming and later expressed between sobs: “I’m sad . . . because Rachel went away.” For many months, she had been sleeping comfortably in her own bed, but after Rachel’s death, she became increasingly resistant to spending nights apart from me. I questioned her about it, and she eventually explained that she was afraid to let me sleep alone without her — because I might die like Rachel did. And the questions continued:

“Why did Rachel die?”

She was sick, my love.

“Was she old?”

No, baby, she was young. Younger than me.

“I don’t want her to be dead.”

Me neither.

“I miss her.”

Me too.

While I couldn’t bring Rachel back or promise that we wouldn’t lose other people in the future, I did my best to reassure her that “Mama and Joy are forever” in case there was any doubt in her mind.

“And Ba, too?” she asked, about her stuffed beluga.

And Ba, too.

More than one year later, I continue to feel the effects of Rachel’s death, including symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The difficulties I’ve been having with concentration and managing anxiety, especially when in front of a computer, mean that I’m unable to work like I used to. So, I recently made the shift from salaried employment to freelance work to allow for more flexibility in my schedule. With regular therapy, I’ve been working through my feelings of guilt and on being the best possible parent for Joy. I’ve been building back my community of support, finding comfort in the people who showed up for me at the most challenging times. I exercise and meditate to maintain a healthy body and tranquil mind. And I write as much as I can.

Earlier this year, perhaps in a reactionary move, I booked flights for us to London, England, where I lived for four years just over a decade ago. For four weeks this past July, we travelled across Europe by train with only a carry-on suitcase and a backpack. It was good to step out of our routine and leave behind all the reminders of last summer. Apart from the usual challenges of travelling with a young child, such as meltdowns stemming from ever-changing environments, it was a wonderful bonding experience for us. 

I am so grateful for my life and for wanting every day to be alive and to stay alive, even on the hardest days. I have a fierce desire not only to survive but to thrive in this life. So, with Joy by my side, that is exactly what I will continue to do. 

Wellness Together Canada crisis support: If you’re in distress, you can text WELLNESS to 741741 to connect with a mental health professional at any time. If it’s an emergency, call 911 or go to your local emergency department.

Assistance: People in Canada experiencing mental health distress can get assistance through Talk Suicide Canada. Dial toll-free: 1-833-456-4566.


Author: (she/her) is a queer woman who writes, performs, teaches, and makes art in many forms. She is grateful to live on Algonquin Anishinaabe territory (Ottawa) with her daughter Joy.