Mental health blog

On June 28, 2013, the role of Chief Addictions and Mental Health Officer was established in response to the 2013 floods to help coordinate mental health supports for Albertans affected by the floods. This role has come to an end effective September 30, 2015.

These blogs about mental health were part of the mandate and will remain here as a resource for a little while.

Blog posts

“Keep him here”– Recognizing World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10 (September 10, 2015)

September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. Every year, on this day, I focus on how to save people from death by suicide. Contrary to what many think, we are also reminded that the majority of the people who die by suicide are middle aged men. Like me.

Every year over 500 Alberta families have to deal with the death of their father, son, brother and uncle. Why do so many men lose hope in the midst of despair, shame, or whatever pushes them past that invisible line? Perhaps we men are more prone to believe our own critical thoughts. Certainly we are not as good as women in talking about the feelings we have inside, let alone looking for help. And men are more likely to turn to alcohol and other drugs than women. So, how can we “keep him here?” Collectively, we need to remind ourselves that the tough cowboy image only goes so far. We all have our limits.

Truly wise people know when to reach out for help. Somehow, we need to allow those conversations about things-not-going-so-well to happen without judgement – especially the judgement we pour upon ourselves.

I think of families who have lost members to suicide. I think of the difficulty in talking about these deaths. We need to come to the point where we understand that a death by suicide says as much about our community’s attitude as it does about the person who died. Each of us has a part to help those who are losing hope – to keep them here.

Visit www.keephimhere.ca to find out how you can support the men in your life. If you are one of those who are struggling, some more resources can be found at:


Harm reduction drives Alberta’s take-home naloxone project (August 18, 2015)

You may have heard lately about a new community-based project that provides take-home naloxone to people who are at a high risk of overdosing on opioid drugs such as heroin or fentanyl. Naloxone is a safe, effective drug that can be used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose and buy people precious time to get emergency medical help. This project is being funded by Alberta Health through a one-year grant of $300,000 to the Alberta Community Council on HIV. It has already saved lives.

Initiatives like Alberta’s take-home naloxone project are sometimes described as harm reduction. A harm reduction approach recognizes that people sometimes engage in risky behaviour, such as taking dangerous drugs, even when they’re aware of the risks (after all, we do know that addiction is not about making logical choices). Harm reduction aims to minimize the harms caused by risky behaviours, so people can go on living and have a chance to get their lives back on track.

Harm reduction is just one part of a much broader response that is needed to address the complex problem of illicit drug use in our society. No one believes that take-home naloxone is going to fix these difficult problems. That remains a work in progress, involving shared efforts by law enforcement, community agencies, families, communities, healthcare services, and all levels of government.

What we can say definitively is that harm reduction is an effective way to save lives. It can also be very cost-effective, as we’ve seen from the example of needle distribution programs. These programs not only help to prevent the spread of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C, but also help to reduce the significant costs to our health care system associated with managing these diseases.

But what’s most important is that harm reduction means fewer families have to experience the painful loss of a loved one. And it means more Albertans – sons, daughters, parents and loved ones – will have another chance at life. That’s really why harm reduction is an approach worth investing in.


Mental Health Week focuses on changing attitudes (May 7, 2015)

Mental Health Week (May 4–10) takes place during the hockey and basketball playoff seasons. We may see the image of manhood as played out in the corners of the hockey rink. But men aren't always up to fighting it out on the corners. Sometimes we struggle and suffer. And too often we don't share our struggles with someone who can help. Stigma.

Changing these attitudes is why men and boys are the focus of the 64th annual Mental Health Week.

We all want to be strong and self-reliant. One of the best ways we can help ourselves is by connecting with others – be they family, friends or professionals.

So guys, when the going gets tough – get going by building your teamwork. Looking to enhance your support team when you need it most is a STRENGTH. And oh yes, encourage your buddies who may be struggling to open up to their support team because... it just works!

I want to thank the Canadian Mental Health Association and their partners for sponsoring Mental Health Week. Please visit the Canadian Mental Health Association’s website for additional information and resources, and make sure to #GetLoud for mental health this week and throughout the year.

If you or someone you care about needs help, please contact Alberta’s Mental Health Helpline toll-free at 1-877-303-2642. It’s free and confidential, and their staff will be able to help connect you to supports and services in your area.


Choosing the right words to talk about suicide and doctor-assisted death (February 10, 2015)

On Friday, February 6, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down the blanket provisions against assisted death. This decision involves complex issues including the sanctity of life, protection of our most vulnerable people, human dignity and the right to make personal choices. These issues now move to the arenas of politics in Ottawa and provincial legislatures, physician colleges, and of course, will be discussed by the public at large.

It is not my intent to comment on these moral values, but to influence the words we use as we discuss doctor-assisted death. Notice I did not say “assisted suicide.”

With over 30 years of psychiatric practice and having personally presided over dozens of death reviews, I know a few things about death by suicide. Every year in Alberta over 500 people die by suicide. If we take other jurisdictions’ experiences, assisted deaths will only account for a handful of deaths each year in Alberta, but the “true” deaths by suicide will continue at a disturbing pace.

I believe we should reserve the term “suicide” for the all-too-common experience of self-initiated death that friends, family and the medical community would not agree were a reasonable, competent choice. Let us remember that at least 90% of these deaths of are associated with some kind of depression and/or substance abuse.

My worry is that by using the term “suicide,” we confuse the important discussion about self-determination and end-of-life care with the tragedy of death by suicide. I am also concerned that it will delay the development of a comprehensive suicide prevention strategy for both Alberta and Canada. Suicide and assisted death need to be treated as separate issues.

I have known people who contemplated an assisted death. They were in discussion with their family and close friends about their dilemmas, their struggles and their decisions. There was ample opportunity for those around them to respond as best they were able. This is not the picture of most deaths by suicide.

So let us have two conversations: one on how to prevent the tragedy of death by suicide, and another on how our society will respond to requests for physician assisted death.


The power of talk (January 28, 2015)

Today, Bell Canada presents Bell Let’s Talk Day. It’s intended to encourage people across Canada to get involved in a conversation about mental health. Why?

Talk is a reflection of our thinking. When we avoid talking about a subject, it reflects our feelings of fear or shame about a topic. Moving from silence to talk is a step on the road to understanding.

Stigma is the word we use to describe negative generalizations about mental illness. It plays out in acts of discrimination. It is a matter of seeing someone not as a person, but as a representative of something we fear.

Talking openly about mental health and mental illness is a way of overcoming stigma, and reminding ourselves that illness is illness, whether it is physical or mental. Talking reminds us that people who struggle with mental illness are people -- who also happen to have an illness to cope with.

Since one in five of us will have to deal with mental illness at some point in our lives, it’s in our own best interest to cultivate supportive attitudes. It is so much easier to do something constructive if we can talk openly rather than getting tangled in stereotypes, shame and silence. Shame just prevents people with mental health problems from reaching for support or help. It makes mental health problems grow bigger and harder to manage.

So today and every day, let’s build understanding through conversations about mental health, mental illness and our own personal experiences. Let’s do away with stereotypes and stigma. Let’s talk.

Bell has lots of ideas on their website about how people can get involved. Visit letstalk.bell.ca to learn more.


Low-risk drinking guidelines for a safe and fun New Year’s (December 19, 2014)

2015 is fast approaching and Albertans are getting ready to bring in the New Year in style. As we wrap up those last few party details and make our plans to get home safely, probably very few of us will be taking time to review Canada’s Low-risk Drinking Guidelines.

That’s why I want to direct Albertans’ attention to these guidelines now.

My point in bringing these guidelines to people’s attention is not to suggest that we should feel guilty about enjoying some drinks on New Year’s Eve. Let’s celebrate and have fun.

But just like we would do at any other time of year, if we choose to drink, let’s think about doing it safely, and reducing the chances of harm.

Canada’s Low-risk Drinking Guidelines are designed to help Canadians make informed choices about alcohol consumption and to encourage a culture of moderation.

To reduce long-term risks, the guidelines recommend:

  • no more than two drinks a day or 10 drinks a week for women, and 
  • no more than three drinks a day or 15 drinks a week for men, balanced with non-drinking days.

Keep in mind, these are guidelines and not targets, and everyone is different.

Where the experts agree is that drinking more than this can lead to increased risk of injuries such as vehicle collisions, and long-term health risks such as cancer and liver disease.

So this New Year’s Eve and throughout the year, let’s keep these guidelines in mind as we decide for ourselves what makes for a safe and fun celebration.

To learn more about Canada’s Low-risk Drinking Guidelines, please visit the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.
 
Help for alcohol addiction is available. For information and support, please call Alberta Health Services’ Addiction Helpline.


Five reasons why the holidays are good for our mental health (December 12, 2014)

We hear a lot these days about how stressful the holidays can be, and there’s no doubt that it can be a challenging time. But there are also lots of ways in which the holidays can be good for our mental health and well-being.

Here are 5 ways in which the holidays can lift our spirits:

  1. Family and friends – The holidays are a great time to reconnect with family and friends, and these connections are proven to be a very positive factor in supporting good mental health.
  2. The power of giving – Studies show that giving to others contributes to our personal sense of well-being. Endorphins released when we do good things for others can result in a feeling that some people call the “helper’s high.”
  3. Imagination – For children especially, the holidays are filled with imagination, and research shows that using our creativity is great for building brain power. When children imagine themselves in the place of another, they’re building empathy and personal resilience.
  4. Spirituality – Many holiday traditions allow us to express our spirituality, building harmony within our self and with people around us. Spirituality also reinforces hope in our lives.
  5. Time to relax – While not all of us will be able to take vacation over the holidays, for many people, a break over the holidays can offer much-needed time to rest and recharge.

Happy holidays, everyone. Stay safe.


Mental Illness Awareness Week an opportunity to build understanding (October 9, 2014)

This week is Mental Illness Awareness Week – an opportunity to learn more about mental illness, and to remind ourselves that no illness should be stigmatized.

One in five people will experience mental illness in their lifetime. And all of us who are not directly affected will either have family or friends who are. And yet we still struggle with stigma, the belief that somehow mental illness is something to be ashamed of, to hide, to fear. In the Middle Ages, it was the Black Plague that people feared. Now we know that the plague was an illness caused by bacteria and we know how to treat it.

Mental illnesses are also illnesses in their own right. They are not caused by microbes, but they are now understood as brain disorders that affect thoughts, perceptions and emotions. Sometimes – in depression, for example – help can be found in working on underlying thought patterns. Sometimes help can be found in medication to change the balance of the intricate pattern of messages moving about in the brain, as in treatment for schizophrenia. Always, people need the support of friends, family and others around them. Just like with other illnesses, we aim to support the person, even when the illness may change some aspects of the person we know.

This Mental Illness Awareness Week, we can all recall that mental illnesses affect so many of us in so many ways, and we can take time to build our understanding of mental health problems.

Visit the Canadian Alliance on Mental Health and Mental Illness website to learn more about Mental Illness Awareness Week and their Faces of Mental Illness campaign.


We all have a role in suicide prevention (September 10, 2014)

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, a reminder to Albertans and people around the world that we can, and must, reduce suicide’s impact in our communities, and help more people see the hope and possibility in their lives.

World Suicide Prevention Day arrives this year with an added poignancy, as people around the world continue to mourn the loss of actor and comedian Robin Williams. His passing has been a powerful illustration of both the tragedy and complexity of suicide – and the profound sadness that it leaves in its wake.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 800,000 people around the world die by suicide each year. Sadly, in Alberta this year, we will lose about 500 people to suicide. About 75% of those Albertans will be men, with the largest number being between the ages of 30 and 60.

We must also remember that for each person who dies by suicide, many others are affected. The painful consequences of suicide mean that support and care for suicide survivors are a critical part of our community response to the issue.

Suicide prevention in Alberta is spearheaded by several organizations, including Alberta Health Services, the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Support Network, the Distress Centre, the Centre for Suicide Prevention, the United Way, and others. We are also fortunate to have an outstanding professional treatment system that includes health professionals, psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, and support programs.

But the single biggest protective factor against suicide is connection with people who care. This means that family, community members, friends and colleagues all have a role to play in suicide prevention. With one in five people experiencing a mental illness in their lifetime, and the remaining four knowing someone whose life is touched by mental illness, the role we can all play in prevention cannot be overestimated.

I strongly believe that if we’re going to reduce suicide’s impact in our communities, we must bring the conversation more into the open and stop talking about suicide in hushed terms. We must reduce the stigma around suicide, and begin to see it as an unfortunate outcome of feeling hopeless. We must also continue to build understanding that suicide is often linked to diseases such as depression, schizophrenia or addiction, which can severely distort a person’s thoughts and feelings.

Moving forward, let’s keep the conversation going, and let’s keep sight of the facts about suicide and the powerful role we can play in suicide prevention.

Many of the organizations listed above have helpful information on suicide prevention on their websites. And the Alberta Suicide Prevention Network has launched a new prevention campaign at www.keephimhere.ca. You can also go to https://myhealth.alberta.ca  for more information on suicide prevention.


“Suicide” or “self-death” (August 28, 2014)

Over the last two weeks there have been two high-profile deaths that were both labelled as suicide, but seem very different to me. I will write a separate blog about suicide for World Suicide Prevention Day, but in the meantime let me focus on language and meaning.

First came the death of Robin Williams by suicide. So much sadness and regret was expressed as a result of his death. This is the death-by-suicide that I know only too well as a psychiatrist. It is the final result of depression, substance abuse and other illnesses that affect feeling and thinking. It is the result of distorted logic, and psychological pain which is unbearable – at least at the time of the act. It leaves behind a terrible legacy of pain for loved ones.

Then there was Gillian Bennett from B.C. who chose to die at the age of 89 as she was slowly losing herself to dementia. This is also labelled suicide, but it seems such a different act that it deserves a different name. Sometimes the term “rational suicide” has been used to distinguish it. I have known people who faced the possibility of a long, inexorable decline ending only with death. In looking forward, they could pinpoint where they would choose to stop the process. I found myself unsure whether I would make the same choice, but unable to dispute the logic, or judge this choice as simply a product of “distorted thinking.” Like Ms. Bennett, they could discuss this choice with family members who might not like the choice, but could understand it without a legacy of guilt. For situations like these, I think a word other than “suicide” is needed. “Euthanasia” might work better in some ways, but it seems too passive. “Self-death” seems a bit awkward but I will use it for now.

In Alberta this year, we expect over 500 people to die by their own actions. A small handful might fit the “self-death” category, while the large majority of the 500 will fit the sad profile that I outlined first. These are very different situations, and we need to be able to discuss them openly without confusing one for the other. Each of them needs to be approached with understanding and compassion to direct both personal and public responses.

Affirmation of life is a fundamental value for me, not just the amount of life, but the quality of life. I also recognize that these are not simple or simplistic conversations. I think it best that we use different words so for now I will use “suicide” for one and “self-death” for the other.

Suicide or self-death; the essence of the conversation is about life and living.


Thoughts on the passing of Robin Williams (August 13, 2014)

Like so many others, I was saddened by the death of actor and comedian Robin Williams, and particularly saddened by the fact that he died by suicide. It is a harsh word, and one that we often avoid because it carries so many mixed feelings.

Suicide is a statement of sadness. Whether it represents a moment of desperation, or a long struggle of suffering, it is more common than many people know. Death by suicide comes to about 500 Albertans each year. Some suggest that at least 7 other people are touched closely by each death by suicide.

Research tells us that a little more than half of those who die by suicide have struggled with depression, and a little less than half have struggled with addictions, many with both. I understand both of these as illnesses, affecting not only how people feel, but how they think and hope and act. And sometimes these illnesses lead to death by suicide. Their legacy is one of pain and sadness.

I do not judge those who die by suicide, but I do support life. It is my wish that we all make sure that, however frightening suicide may be, it becomes something we are willing to discuss with compassion. If we are willing to talk about it, perhaps those who feel alone with their pain will be more willing to speak to their family, their friends and the professionals in our midst.

Like so many challenges in life, feeling trapped by suicidal thoughts and feelings may be embarrassing, but it need not be shameful. As with other challenges in life, openly sharing these painful thoughts and feelings with others may allow people to seek help and move away from this terrible darkness.

To be able to help each other as each of us is able – this is what I hope for my community. This is what I would have hoped for Robin Williams. This is what I hope for Albertans, and what I work for every day.


Emotional recovery one year later (June 20, 2014)

With the recent heavy rains in southern Alberta and the one-year anniversary of the floods arriving this week, we’re hearing more stories about our fellow Albertans who are coping with stress, anxiety, depression and other emotional challenges as a result of their experiences last summer and over the past year of recovery.

My first message to Albertans is that these feelings are normal, and if you're feeling this way, you are not alone. We know from research and from past experiences in post-disaster recovery that everyone responds differently to traumatic events, and emotional recovery can take months, even years.

The Alberta government has focused strongly on supporting Albertans' mental health after the floods. By working closely with partners and community agencies, we’ve added clinicians, counsellors, therapists and outreach workers to help meet Albertans’ mental health needs. These supports and services continue to be available to Albertans who need them.

For information about the services and supports available in your area, please call Health Link at 811. Health Link’s experienced health professionals will be able to connect you to the appropriate resources.

The Alberta Health Services website also has a number of helpful resources for dealing with emotional stress due to the floods. Two resources that Albertans may find particularly helpful at this time are the following:

  • Responding to an emergency or disaster – Provides information on common reactions to stressful events, and how to get back to normal as quickly as possible in the days, weeks and months after a disaster.
  • Recovery after a disaster or emergency – Provides information on recovery over a longer time period, including tips on self-care and signs that a person may be having difficulty coping.

Over the past year, we’ve seen that Albertans are incredibly resilient and supportive of each other during times of need. When faced with the worst disaster in our province’s history, Albertans responded with character, strength, compassion and generosity. And those qualities continue to carry us through today.

Let’s take the time this anniversary to reconnect with our friends, families and neighbours, and to make sure we’re taking the best possible care of ourselves and each other. We’ve made it this far together, and we will continue to be there for each other as we travel farther down the road to recovery.


Flood recovery – Staying positive this spring (March 21, 2014)

With spring’s arrival and the recent warm temperatures in Alberta, some Albertans who experienced floods last year may be feeling anxious or afraid.

These feelings are not uncommon for people who have experienced a disaster or crisis, and if you’re feeling this way, you’re not alone.

Feelings of anxiety or fear may be coming up for a couple of reasons. For some, spring’s arrival may have brought back painful memories from last year’s floods that had faded over winter. We may also be feeling worried about the potential that we could have more floods again this year.

Albertans who were affected by the floods have come through a lot over the last 10 months, and this spring begins another chapter in our recovery.

If you are feeling worried, anxious or afraid, I want to share a few thoughts on how you can turn your memories and fears to your advantage.

Dealing with painful memories

You may have felt sadness or any number of different emotions since last summer. It’s important that we acknowledge these feelings and respect them.

But as you recall how you’ve felt, I encourage you also to recognize how much you’ve come through to get to this point. It hasn’t been without loss or the painful realization that some things may never be quite the same, but you’ve shown incredible strength and resiliency in getting to this point. That’s something you can feel very positive about.

Remember too that along with all of the painful experiences the floods brought, we also were able to experience the incredible gifts of community, and the kindness and generosity of people across the province. Recall the thousands of volunteers who stepped up to help in a time of need. As we continue rebuild and move forward, we can feel good about the fact that we are surrounded by so many great people who are willing to help.

Some wounds may be slow to heal, but beyond some of our worst losses and disappointments, there is almost always a reason to hope. Let’s keep that hope in mind this spring.

Facing fears

And what about our fears about what lies ahead? What can we do about those?

On the one hand, we have to acknowledge that we can’t control everything that will happen in the future. That's just part of being alive in this world. But what we can do – as individuals, families and communities – is to prepare and plan as well as possible for whatever life may bring.

Being ready is one great way to tackle our fears.

Let’s also remember that we have the experiences of last summer on our side – and as hard as they were, those experiences have made us stronger and wiser. Even if the worst were to happen again (which is very unlikely), we know that we have the wisdom and strength to get through it, and to keep moving forward.

So plan to be ready if you need to, but know also that your family, friends and community are there to support you if you need them.

Getting help

If you are experiencing emotional distress, or are concerned about the emotional well-being of someone you know, please call the Mental Health Line at 1-877-303-2642. We’ll always have someone who can listen and who can help you connect with the support. This may include:

  • crisis intervention.
  • information on programs and services to help you manage stress and anxiety. or
  • referral to other agencies where appropriate.

You can also call Health Link (811) for information about services and supports closest to you.


Tips to help reduce your holiday stress (December 17, 2013)

Holidays are a great time of year to enjoy family, friends, traditions and good food. Holidays can also trigger stress and feelings of sadness. For many, still dealing with a particular traumatic event and the realities of day-to-day life, the holidays may be especially challenging.

Here are some tips to manage the stress and overwhelming feelings that can accompany the holiday season.

Understand that your feelings are normal

Acknowledging and honestly expressing that this holiday season may be difficult is important. Recognizing that you may not be able to recreate your past holiday experiences and traditions can be tough. It is normal to feel sad, disappointed and perhaps angry that things must be different now.

For some, it may be helpful to try something new and celebrate the holidays in a different way. For others, it will be important to join with a community where support and encouragement is extended.

Pause

It is important to take time for yourself; nurture your mind, body and spirit. Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner calm.

Take time for health

Maintaining an active and healthy lifestyle (physical activity, balanced diet and plenty of sleep) will help you to reduce and manage stress and feelings of sadness.

Alcohol can complicate

Alcohol may be part of your family tradition and holiday celebrations. However, using alcohol to ease sadness or stress only gives short-term relief, and can actually make you feel worse in the longer term. Try to avoid overdrinking by staying within the Canadian Low-Risk Drinking Guidelines. If you need help or have questions, call the Addiction Helpline at 1-866-332-2322.

Ask for help

Find time to connect with others to help prevent feelings of loneliness and grief. Go to a place where you can find support and encouragement. If you need more help or have questions about what you can do to be well, call the Mental Health Helpline at 1-877-303-2642.


October 15, 2013

Moving forward for mental health

The way that Canadians think about mental health issues continues to amaze me, in both positive and negative ways. Let me tell you what I mean.

A couple weeks ago, Statistics Canada reported that 1 in 10 Canadians have mental health or addictions issues. Statistics Canada defined these issues as anything from depression, anxiety, or abuse or dependence on drugs or alcohol. Of the 25,000 Canadians surveyed, 1 in 3 reported that their mental health needs were not being met by the system. As Chief Mental Health Officer for Alberta, you can imagine this caught my attention.

Looking deeper, 16% of Canadians felt their needs were only being partially met when it came to helping them manage their mental health or addiction issues. Perhaps most troubling is that 1 in 5 people reported getting no help at all. The natural next question was “why?”

The survey participants were asked what they thought the barriers were preventing them from getting help, and the overwhelming response was, “personal circumstances.” These circumstances were explained as:

  • "My job interfered."
  • "I haven't gotten around to it yet." And, perhaps most importantly,
  • "I was afraid of what others would think."

The stigma of mental health is still a very powerful thing in our society. Too often, addiction and mental health issues are talked about only in relation to violence and crime, which contributes to the feelings of shame and secrecy. Can you imagine someone saying that they didn’t go to the doctor to treat their diabetes because they were afraid of what other people would think? That is the power of stigma.

Last week was Mental Illness Awareness Week, and while it’s important to raise awareness about how common mental health issues are, it’s also critically important that we take action to eliminate the stigma around getting help. The theme of the week was “Moving forward for mental health,” meaning that we should move beyond just raising awareness and focus on actions that we can take to reduce stigma and help people get the help they need.

Some great examples of people taking action are the recent recipients of the Lieutenant Governor’s Circle on Mental Health and Addiction True Awards. For more information on mental health in Alberta, including how you can get involved in your community, check out the Canadian Mental Health Association – Alberta Chapter.

And as always, if you or someone you know is suffering from an addiction or mental health issue, call the Mental Health Help Line toll-free at 1-877-303-2642, or Health Link at 811. No one is alone in the battle, and we can all move forward together.


Managing back-to-school stress (October 3, 2013)

With children back to school, routines will return. But for many, it is a very different fall routine. Change can bring stress for parents as well as children. For some of Alberta’s children, going back to school has been particularly challenging as they have helped their families rebuild after the flood. No child is too young to feel the effects of stress, although often they are unable to make sense of what they are feeling.

Back-to-school stress can come from a number of different places such as having a new teacher, being in a new environment, a change to daily routine or an increase in workload. Some clues that your child may be feeling stress include:

  • Increased irritability, agitation or restlessness
  • Nervous habits like chewing fingernails
  • Headaches or other body pains
  • Wetting themselves
  • Forgetfulness
  • Feelings of guilt, sadness, depression, helplessness, numbness or fear
  • Sudden decline in school grades
  • Mood swings, especially anger
  • Avoiding activities they once found enjoyable

These are just a few of the reactions that children may have to stress. You can find a much larger list on the Voice Thread website. Keep in mind, though, that not everyone experiences or reacts to stress in the same way.

When helping children manage the stress of going back to school (especially younger children) following a traumatic event like Alberta’s floods, we should remember a few key points:

  1. Your children are dependent on you and other adults for their safety and security.
  2. They are incapable of orienting by themselves and will need help to regain a compass point, a secure base on which to fall back.
  3. They may believe they need to parent themselves, their siblings, and you.
  4. They need to be reminded that "adult problems" are for adults to solve.
  5. They may need others to remind them that they can still be kids.
  6. They may feel rejected and/or abandoned by you if you are less available to them.
  7. And they need to know that, if you seem upset, it is not because of them, but rather it is due to the traumatic event.

A great way to think about managing stress is to think “S.O.S.” which stands for: Situation, Ourselves, Support. That is, when you or your child are showing signs of stress: 

S:  Change the Situation that is causing stress. This may include minimizing exposure to emotional triggers, specifically identifying the source of the problem and working to solve it, and maintaining a big-picture perspective and positive attitude.
O:  Do things to help Ourselves. We can’t help others if we do not first take care of ourselves. Take time for yourself, and encourage your child to do the same. Get them to eat healthy foods, get plenty of sleep, play and do things they enjoy. Remember to laugh.
S: Provide Support. Create a nurturing, caring environment for your children. Talk to them. Express how much you love them. Listen to them and be patient. Remind them over and over that they are safe. And sometimes reminding ourselves to be patient with our children helps us be more patient with ourselves.

While life will never be stress-free, the key to coping with stress is understanding what is happening and the impact it has on you. Children need adults to help them learn how to respond to stress in physically and emotionally healthy ways. They will copy what they see you doing.

More strategies for helping your children manage stress


Recognizing and reducing stress (July 21, 2013)

As we continue to travel the road to recovery it is important to remember recovery will take time.

During a traumatic event, a person adapts to survive, both mentally and physically. In the weeks, months and sometimes years following that event, we can sometimes continue to experience the emotional impact. What we need to do is understand when we are experiencing normal episodes of stress, when to reach out to friends, and when to seek professional help.

Stress is a normal part of life and many of us are under more stress than we are used to. But it is how we respond to life stresses that can determine whether we are coping well or not. If you are experiencing emotional distress, or are concerned about the emotional well-being of others, please contact Health Link at 811. In addition, Educational Resources are available for parents, teachers, and health care professionals.

Managing stress is key; if left unchecked, it can have lasting negative consequences on our lives. There are many different steps you can take to reduce your stress.

Some warning signs that you, or someone you know, is not coping well include:

  • Avoiding people and activities that you usually enjoy.
  • Changes in appetite, appearance, sleep patterns (sleeping less or more; having nightmares or not sleeping at all).
  • Feeling worried, showing poor judgment and/or making frequent mistakes.
  • Sudden lack of concentration or commitment (e.g., being late, taking longer than normal breaks, calling in sick to work more frequently).
  • Feeling hopeless, losing your sense of humour.
  • Using alcohol or drugs more.

Some examples of things you could do for yourself or your family if stress is becoming overwhelming include:

  • Do something each day which is pleasant or positive.
  • Pay attention to what you can control and focus on that. Trying to change what we cannot is just frustrating.
  • Keep in touch with family and friends; this is one of the best balancing mechanisms we have.
  • Listen to some favourite music to keep you in touch with your “happy place”.
  • Get involved in community rehabilitation work as much as you can. This will help decrease stress and give you a sense of accomplishment.
  • If you have children, it is important to help them through this as well. Your child needs you more than ever.
  • Eat nutritious food.
  • Stay hydrated with water.
  • Be active, include some physical activity into each day.
  • Get enough rest and sleep.

To support someone showing signs of stress, try:

  • Talking to them. Tell them you are worried about how they are doing or feeling.
  • Encouraging them to eat healthy food, stay hydrated and get enough sleep. Building in stress-reducing activities like walking or yoga can help reduce tension and help them cope better.
  • Helping them look for the positive; assessing what they need to do (at work, at home) and making a plan with realistic, short-term goals.

If you are having thoughts of self-harm or suicide seek immediate medical attention or call the Mental Health Help Line toll-free at 1-877-303-2642.

And, remember you are not alone. For resources or help in your area call Health Link at 811.

Mental health resources related to disaster recovery are available on Alberta Health Services’ website.


A practical guide to a healthy you (July 12, 2013)

This week it would appear that life is beginning to “normalize” for individuals directly and indirectly impacted by the flooding in southern Alberta. More individuals returned home in areas hardest hit by the flood, the Calgary Stampede carried on, and an urgent care centre opened in High River.

In reality however, we know for some individuals things are by no means back to “normal”. Hundreds of evacuees are still displaced, and thousands are cleaning their homes and businesses.

Over the last two weeks we have talked about where to go for support, and the basics in what you can do to help manage your stress. I want to highlight in more detail now, some tips to help you cope with ongoing stresses as you work towards getting your life back on track.

Here are a few examples:

Connect

  • It is important to take care of yourself, so you can offer support to friends and family when needed.
  • A strong community can be the key to survival. In a disaster, often the first to respond are your neighbours.
  • Encourage teens to do meaningful activities, let them help during a crisis or disaster if they are interested.
  • Have meals together and share something positive that happened each day.
  • Spend time with supportive family and friends. Spending time with people you like is good for your physical and mental health.
  • Holding and comforting children helps them feel safe and secure. Reassure children often, especially at bedtime.

Recover

  • Acknowledge your losses. After a disaster you might have a loss of relationship, belongings, or your daily routine.
  • Let your friends and family know what you need. It is helpful to let others know when you feel tired or when you need to spend time with someone.
  • Accepting help from others is healthy. It can build community spirit.
  • Think positively. Focus on your strengths and what you can do to recover.
  • It’s okay if you feel good after a traumatic event or disaster. Humour and laughter can help lower stress and tension.
  • Take time for recreation. Do things you enjoy to help you feel safe and in control.
  • Express your feelings. Talk with someone or write your feelings down in a diary to help you heal.
  • As much as possible, get back to your daily routine. This will help you feel safe and good about yourself.
  • It’s important to rest if you feel tired. To get a good sleep, do not drink alcohol or have caffeine before bedtime.
  • Physical activity can help lower stress and tension and make you more alert.

Respond

  • Take regular breaks from watching or reading news reports. Thinking and talking about the event too much can make you feel more stressed.
  • Drink water to satisfy your thirst. Stay away from drinks and caffeine or extra sugar as they can dehydrate you and drain your energy.
  • Drinking alcohol increases your chances of doing things that are risky. This can make the situation worse.
  • Be patient. People around you might be distressed and might not act like they usually do.
  • Normal signs of stress include a racing heart, tense muscles, exhaustion, nausea, headaches, and dizziness. This is normal; you are coping and will recover.
  • Get enough rest. Try to get a good sleep in as private a place as possible.
  • It is normal for stress to cause you to feel fearful, numb, detached, depressed, guilty, angry, irritable or anxious. This is common; you are coping and will recover.
  • When under stress you may experience problems with nightmares, concentrating, memory, thinking clearly, and making decisions. This is also common. You are coping and will recover.
  • Stay calm. To help manage stress, relax your breathing. Take a slow deep breath in and then exhale slowly, and repeat 10 times.

Mental health resources related to disaster recovery are available on our Alberta Health Services website, including the flood-specific resource Support for Albertans Affected by Flood.

If you are experiencing emotional distress, or are concerned about the emotional well-being of others, please call Health Link at 811or the Mental Health Help Line at 1-877-303-2642..

I want to hear from you too. What are some things you do to help you cope? Have you found an activity or process that helps you relax or feel less stressed? Pass along your suggestions – your ideas may help others too!


Support has many faces (July 5, 2013)

As residents directly impacted by the Alberta flooding return home, we know that stress may become overwhelming. And being overwhelmed often means not knowing where to start and where to put our foot down next on the recovery road.

We have all been affected by this tragedy in some way or another. We may have been affected by viewing the devastation through media, seeing it first-hand, being a first responder, volunteering and, of course, by having our homes or communities directly impacted.

This is a stressful time for thousands of us. You are not alone; support is available. Sometimes we need support from a strong back; sometimes from a good ear and a practical word.

There is a full spectrum of emotional support in place including self-care, informal support of family and friends, and professional support. It is essential that the emotional recovery infrastructure is a full partner in this disaster recovery process.

We have recovery relief counsellors in the community helping those who are returning to see their homes for the first time. Resources and counsellors are also at the remaining evacuee centres and are on hand for individuals visiting the funding and recovery program centres.

I think it is also important that we all remember everyone copes with stress differently, even those who haven’t been directly impacted by the flood. Some individuals can feel the distress at a distance as much as others who were directly impacted. Some may even experience flashbacks, depression, anxiety, nightmares, sleeping problems, lack of motivation, social isolation and obsessing over the event.

It is important to remember that stress is normal. It is okay to feel frustration, anger, and helplessness. These are normal responses to an abnormal situation. So let me remind you of what you probably already know (and under stress, we forget what we know!):

Connect. Your family, friends and community may have activities that bring you together to share memories. Find ways to help others when you can and accept help from others when you need it. Connecting with others helps build hope and reminds you that you are not alone.

Manage stress. Some stress is expected after a disaster. Creating a routine that includes healthy activities you did before the event is a needed step to recovery. Build in stress-reducing activities such as walking or yoga. Physical activity can help reduce tension and help your body produce chemicals and hormones that help you cope better.

Accept what has changed. Making sense and meaning out of a disaster can be hard. In the first year after a disaster, it is common for certain events (e.g., birthdays, holidays, change of season) to remind you what has changed or what you have lost. Part of recovery and healing is to recognize these times and to know it’s okay to grieve.

Look for the positive. After a traumatic event, it can be hard to see things in a positive light. Making time for activities that you enjoy is important. Socialize or take part in spiritual activities, hobbies, or spend time in nature. Positive experiences can help you recover. When you feel positive emotions like appreciation or gratitude, your body produces chemicals and hormones that are good for you. This can help keep you physically and emotionally healthy.

Although feelings and symptoms are common following a disaster, you should be aware of the warning signs and know when to seek additional support and help. And if you try to reach out and don’t get what you need, keep asking!

Some warning signs you may not be coping well include:

  • Thinking about the disaster or traumatic event all the time.
  • Having flashbacks to the event.
  • A change in your sleep pattern (sleeping less or more, waking up through the night, having nightmares or not sleeping at all).
  • Avoiding people or activities that you usually enjoy.
  • Using alcohol or drugs more.
  • Having thoughts about harming yourself or suicide.
  • Changes in appetite (eating more or less than usual).
  • Feeling hopeless.
  • Feeling worried or frustrated more than usual.

We are all human beings, and we all have limits. Remember you are not alone. Help is available for you and your loved ones. You can call Health Link at 811 or the Mental Health Help Line at 1-877-303-2642..


You are not alone, support is available (June 28, 2013)

Traumatic events are usually unexpected and can have a big impact on your mental and physical health.

After a disaster like we’ve experienced in Alberta, we need to recognize that people have a number of stresses and each person handles these stresses differently.

You are not alone. There are the supports in place to help you cope with this devastation.

Help can come from informal support you receive from your close family and friends. It is critical that we recognize how we can all help each other through this tragedy but to also know there are professional supports available.

As we move forward into the recovery phase it becomes even more important to take care of our mental well-being and emotional health.

I want Albertans to know that support is available.

We are co-ordinating mental health resources to help you. We are visiting communities to talk to residents and provide additional supports, along with personal support provided by the Canadian Red Cross.

Mental health resources related to disaster recovery are available including the flood-specific resource Support for Albertans Affected by Flood. PDF logo

If you are experiencing emotional distress, or are concerned about the emotional well-being of others, please contact the Mental Health Help Line toll-free at 1-877-303-2642.

Today, I will host a Twitter chat through the @AHS_media Twitter account about ways to help you cope after a disaster. Resources will be provided during this hour-long chat and I will also give some tips on things you can do to help normalize your life.

Remember that it’s normal to feel stress. Everyone who goes through a traumatic event is affected in some way. Sometimes these stresses may not appear for weeks or months following an event. It is important to watch for warning signs.

There are a variety of the things you can do to try and help you cope.

  • Try and normalize your life as much as you can. Make a list of what you need to do in the next day or week to keep you and your family safe.
  • “Take a break”, go for a walk or some exercise, we all cope better with a positive outlet to “burn off “ some of the energy. Remember; stress involves activating our body adrenaline and other hormones, and physical activity helps to keep it in balance.
  • Do something each day which is pleasant or positive and not flood related.
  • Pay attention to what you can control and focus on that. Trying to change what we cannot is just frustrating.
  • Keep in touch with family and friends; this is one of the best balancing mechanisms we have.
  • Try to get a routine going; maybe eating together at regular times as a family.
  • If you don’t feel “yourself”, remember that these are not “normal” times... cut yourself some slack and seek someone to talk to.
  • Maybe listening to some favourite music keeps you in touch with your “happy place”.
  • There are negative ways to “escape”... listen to your inner wisdom.
  • Try to take regular breaks from listening to or watching news reports. Thinking and talking about the events too much can make you more stressed.
  • Get involved in community rehabilitation work as much as you can. This will help decrease stress and give you all a sense of accomplishment.
  • If you have children it is important to help them through this as well. Your child needs you more than ever.
  • Resources are available to help your child or teen recover from disaster. Like you, your child or teen can have a delayed reaction to what he or she has been through. Help them cope by reducing tension, anxiety and feelings of guilt. Give your child or teen responsibilities and meaningful tasks to focus on to help reduce stress.PDF logo
  • One of the most important things you can do for yourself and your family is to take care of yourself by eating well and getting plenty of rest. This can decrease worry and help you all recover.

And, remember you are not alone. For resources or help in your area call Health Link at 811 or the Mental Health Help Line at 1-877-303-2642.

We are all in this together. What are you doing to help you and your family cope? Perhaps your suggestions can help others.