May 8, 2016
By CAROLINE PHILIPS / OTTAWA CITIZEN
Mental health advocate, writer and well-known philanthropist Barbara Crook didn’t invent the term “stignorance” but its application in her speech, delivered at a fundraising dinner Thursday, is helping to put the stigma and ignorance surrounding mental illness in their proper place – behind us.
Crook spoke to a crowd of about 160 supporters of Ancoura at the St. Elias Centre. Since 2008, the volunteer-driven charity group has been providing housing and a supportive community for people living with mental illness. It currently has five homes, each consisting of three-bedroom townhouses, and plans to open a new home later this year.
Crook shared her own family and personal history with mental illness. She’s been living with clinical depression for nearly 20 years but has managed it fine with medication and talk therapy.
She and her husband, Dan Greenberg, son of Shirley Greenberg and Minto Developments co-founder Irving Greenberg, have donated millions of dollars to health care, including to mental health causes.
“Dan and I believe that the true measure of a society is how it takes care of its most vulnerable members,” said Crook in a heartfelt speech that earned her a standing ovation. “That includes those with broken spirits and broken minds, who can’t advocate for themselves until we give them the tools and the space to heal. And until we treat them with respect and compassion.”
Even the most well-meaning people can stigmatize a person with mental illness without realizing it, said Crook, because they feel awkward and don’t know what to say, are too eager to make everything better, or think the solution is tough love.
Crook offered suggestions for combating “stignorance” that she came up with, along with Prof. Heather Stuart, who holds the Bell Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair at Queen’s University. Advice ranged from educating oneself about the signs and treatment of mental illness, to performing small acts of kindness, such as sending a card to someone on stress leave or in hospital, or offering to take that someone for coffee upon their return.
“Mental illness isn’t contagious,” said Crook.
It’s important to listen openly, without judging or preaching, said Crook. She also believes in supporting mental health and anti-stigma programs, whether it’s through a donation or writing a letter to your political representative.
“I want the world to know that depression and mental illness can affect anyone, regardless of education, socio-economic level or family situation,” said Crook. “Ironically, it can affect the sunniest people you know … People for whom the glass has always been way more than half full, until suddenly it’s not.”