Thursday, December 21, 2017

Mental Illness and Families

During the holidays, we tend to focus our energies and blog posts on the positive aspects of celebrating with friends and family. Yet, Christmas can be a difficult time as well, remembering loved ones who are no longer with us, or feeling sadness or guilt about those friends or family members whom we have lost touch with. Christmas can be especially difficult for individuals and families struggling with mental illness.

In one of my former career roles, I was involved with creating a welcoming environment to help students flourish on campus; setting up systems and services to help support students struggling with addiction and mental health issues; and promoting open discussion about mental health in an effort to reduce stigma. It was important work, and I believe that those initiatives have made the post-secondary experience better for many students.

But what I would like to write about today comes from a more personal perspective. As with most of us, mental health issues have impacted my life because of illnesses experienced by members of my family, and by close friends and their families. I would need more than my ten fingers to count the number of family members or close friends who have struggled with depression, anxiety, or both. This is not surprising, as depression and anxiety are extremely prevalent in our North American society. Other mental illnesses include schizophrenia, psychosis, personality disorders, and eating disorders.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health reports that:

  • In any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians experiences a mental health or addiction problem.
  • By the time Canadians reach 40 years of age, 1 in 2 have – or have had – a mental illness.

Although depression and anxiety are the most commonly reported mental illnesses, and especially prevalent among young people between 15 and 24, substance abuse often goes hand-in-hand with mental health struggles. In my extended family, over the past ten years we have lost two young adults to addiction related deaths. These were smart, successful, personable, well-loved young people. Being loved, and having supportive families and partners, were not sufficient to protect them from substance misuse that ultimately led to their deaths.

International Overdose Awareness Day in Vancouver, BC, August 2017. Photo credit: The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck, retrieved from Huffington Post

I believe that it is important to speak openly about mental health matters, and to encourage people to seek appropriate help rather than being ashamed about their illness and hiding it. I believe it is important to support each other and to recognize that mental illness is an illness, not a willful behaviour or lack of individual strength. De-stigmatizing mental illness helps people reach self-acceptance and develop strategies to stay healthy, and helps families and friends to behave in more understanding and supportive ways. Increased awareness about mental illness also is the first step toward addressing discrimination within our workplaces and other social organizations.

in the last decade, great strides have been made in enhancing awareness about mental health. There is excellent research being done, and better support and services at universities, colleges, and through government provided social services. Organizations like the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health, and here to help serve as portals to information and services. Online "self-serve" resources are increasingly available, such as the info sheets and tool kits provided by here to help.

Image from Canadian Mental Health Association:
However, we still have a long way to go. There simply aren't enough services available to help everyone adequately, as can be seen in the current opioid crisis, and the high levels of homelessness.

Very often, families are left to struggle on their own to cope with a family member's mental illness or addiction, or to deal with the aftermath of an addiction death or suicide. With many types of mental illness, such as schizophrenia or dementia, the person with the illness shows little self-awareness. They may not recognize that they have an illness. They may have paranoid delusions about family members or health professionals who try to help them, and resist the assistance. They may refuse medication or counselling.

People who are deeply depressed, self-harming, manic, addicted, or delusional can be difficult to be around. A family member in a helping role may feel helpless and anxious about whether their loved one will find ways to survive and thrive, and to overcome or live with their condition.

Similarly, people struggling with a mental illness may try to hide it from family and friends because they don't want them to worry, or they don't want to be a burden. However, speaking about the issues openly can help to relieve the pain of keeping it bottled up. It can help family members understand, reduce their anxiety, and enable them to provide better support.

One of my hopes in this Christmas season is that each of us reaches out in some small way to someone we know who is struggling. Whether we provide a listening ear, make a phone call, send a card, donate to support mental health research, or make a point of including someone in the festivities who otherwise might be on their own, each one of us can add a little cheer in the Christmas season.

In British Columbia, Canada, the province-wide Crisis Centre phone number is 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433). The Crisis Centre also provides an online crisis chatline and a youth chatline, as well as a number of free services for parents and families.

Saturday, December 9, 2017


Amazing art on the walls of buildings all over Berlin. This mural was across the street from our B&B.

As a person who grew up during the years of the cold war, I was fascinated with the story of the division of Germany into East and West Germany. Berlin, located behind the border of East Germany also was divided into three western controlled sectors and one Soviet controlled sector, East Berlin, with West Berlin accessible via road and rail corridors and by air. Berlin was also the place where Hitler and Eva Braun spent their last days in the Fuhrerbunker, and of course it is one of the great cities of the world. Although I have travelled to Europe several times, I had never made it to Berlin.

So when Erica and I discussed where to travel after the film festival in Hanover, it was obvious to both of us that we must go to Berlin. She has exhibited her work there before, and knows some people in the online art world and film industry in Berlin. Whereas I was especially interested in the history, the art galleries, and also the chance to connect with my niece, who is currently living in Poland.

My first morning in Berlin, I went on a Cold War Berlin walking tour. Our guide, Pip, a historian, was wonderful. The Berlin Wall (das Mauer) stood from 1961-1989, dividing East and West Berlin. During those 28 years, people were not allowed to pass from East to West, and access for West Berliners to the eastern part of the city was limited. The Berlin Wall began to be spontaneously dismantled by residents of East and West Berlin on November 9, 1989, following an announcement (possibly erroneous) by an East German official that people were now permitted to to cross from East to West freely. Reunification of Germany took place in 1990, after the Wall fell.

A small section of the Berlin Wall remains standing at Bernauer Strasse

Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor) was in the neutral zone along the Wall.

A memorial to 57 of the people who died trying to cross into West Berlin, including children and a baby.

We visited the Tranenpalast (Palace of Tears) at Friedrichstrasse. This border crossing at a rail station was where West Berliners who had applied for a visitor's visa passed through for 24 hour visits to East Berlin. Checkpoint Charlie on Friedrichstrasse was the only border crossing that foreigners were allowed to use to enter East Berlin.

This famous photo of an East Berlin border guard escaping by leaping over the barbed wire Wall (before the concrete wall had been erected) appears on the side of a building near the Berlin Wall Memorial.

Reconciliation Sculpture: "The sculpture created by the sculptor Josefina de Vasconcellos is a call for reconciliation following the devastation of the Second World War. Copies exist at sites that were deeply affected by the war: in the Coventry Cathedral, in the Hiroshima peace museum -- and in the former border strip at the Berlin Wall."*
We spent most of our time in the part of Berlin that used to be East Berlin. One morning I went for a walk to see Karl-Marx-Allee. It is a wide boulevard flanked with apartment buildings that the socialist government in East Berlin built as a "workers' paradise."

Hackescher Markt S-Bahn (train station)
Of course, during our visit we did more than visit historical sites. We went for a Thai massage. We went to a Christmas market. There are more than 60 of them in the city of Berlin alone! We had a wonderful visit with my niece and her boyfriend, who travelled all the way from Warsaw to meet up with us. We went out for dinner to many great, not too pricey restaurants.

Out to dinner for Wurst und Bier with Laura, Marcin, Erica, and a Berlin friend.
A Christmas Market
We also went to several galleries/art shows. We attended a fabulous art show by Carla Gannis at the DAM Gallery. She uses augmented reality and self images. Her body of work provides a fascinating commentary on the human/technology interface in contemporary culture. We attended an art opening featuring work by five photographers, which I found distasteful -- definitely not a style of photography that I appreciate. However, it was an interesting opportunity to people watch, as the "cool" people of Berlin milled about in their finery, trying to be noticed.

I spent a happy half a day in the Alte Nationalgalerie, one of five art museums on Museum Island, a UNESCO Heritage site. I spent most of my time looking at the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, as well as the Rodin special exhibition. (I love the Impressionists.) My photos are not adequate to capture what I saw.

A beautiful blue dome
The Thinker, by Rodin


Looking out the main entry door of the Alte Nationalgalerie
We were only in Berlin for five nights and we did a lot. Erica's schedule was even busier that mine; I have a greater need for sleep. But why sleep in Berlin, when you can catch up on sleeping during the flight home?

Catching ZZZ's in the airport
It was a fantastic trip, and I am so glad that I went.

*Caption in English posted beside the Reconciliation Sculpture

Monday, December 4, 2017

Film Festival in Germany

With my daughter, Erica Lapadat-Janzen
 So, if it seems as if I have been a bit absent from my blog lately here’s why. I have been travelling in Germany.

My daughter is a net artist and also works in art design in the film industry. She was invited to present one of her short films at an international film festival in Hanover, Germany, the Up and Coming Film Festival. And lucky me -- I got to come along! We went on a mother-daughter trip, with the first part of the trip in Hanover at the film festival, and then we went Berlin for a few days. So exciting!

Up and Coming Film Festival

Erica Lapadat-Janzen

This film festival features young film makers from all over the world. With only 167 films selected from over 3,000 submissions, it was exciting that Erica's film was one of the two presented from Canada.

As it turned out, Erica's film was scheduled as a headliner film, screened as part of the Opening Ceremony. I had a proud mommy moment as I sat in the theater and watched her film, and then again as Erica was invited up onto the stage to speak about her work. She did a fantastic interview.

Erica Speaks About her Work
 As a guest of one of the young film makers, I had a festival pass for the four days. It was really fun watching the films, which included a wide range of genres: narrative, action, documentary, animation, experimental, and so forth. The talent of the young film makers was astounding, and they did not shy away from taking on difficult topics and world issues.

As an example, one memorable documentary, Ici, personne ne meurt (Nobody Dies Here), showed the plight of gold miners in Benin, Africa. Another film that really made an impression on me was Terrorist, one of the films in the German section. It addressed how easily blame for a terrorist act can be misdirected, and the terrible consequences for family members who are left behind. Another film that I'll mention here, one of the winners in the international section, was Parallel. The title of this  U.S. film references the division of the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel. The film maker, Jiwon Choi, interspersed interviews with her grandfather, who served in the Korean War, with clips showing the rise of Korean pop and commercialism. Of course, there were many additional amazing films, including some excellent short animations and some 360 degree films.

We had some adventures getting to Hanover. We barely made our connection in Frankfurt because there is a lot of construction going on at the airport. We had to disembark our flight way out on the tarmac and be bused to the terminal, clear customs, and run to our gate (through a very big airport). We were among the last to make it to the gate, then we were bused out to the plane which also was parked far from the terminal. Although we just made the connection, our luggage did not. (It eventually arrived the next afternoon.)

We Barely Made Our Connection
We stayed in a cool "Euro-style" hotel -- which was not surprising seeing as we were in Europe! Breakfast was included. I love European breakfasts. The spread included cold meat, cheeses, smoked salmon, yogurt, fruit, many nice breads, jam, as well as eggs and other hot foods, and cereal. My breakfast beverage of choice was Klein Milch Kaffee. Coffee and beer are better in Germany.

View From My Hotel Room
We ate at nice restaurants, including a Bavarian schnitzel restaurant and a couple of great Italian restaurants. I had been brushing up on my German in preparation for the trip. Unfortunately I am nowhere near fluent, but the bit of German I knew was helpful from time to time. However, most people we met spoke English much better than I speak German. Erica did lots of networking. I continued working on my novel, and managed to write another 58 pages during the ten-day trip.

I tried to write blog posts while I was there, but had technical issues. I was unable to upload photos to Blogger from my phone or tablet, which was frustrating. I had to wait until I was back home, where I could send the photos from my phone to my computer, and then upload them.

After Hanover, we went to Berlin, a city that I have long wanted to visit. More about that in another post.