Adam: Treasure the organizations that tackle mental-health challenges

The Sashbear Foundation, one such group, offers support for people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and their families. Its work, and that of others, is of critical importance to society.

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When Lynn Courey’s daughter, Sasha, took her life in 2011, Courey and her husband turned their grief into a passion for helping others. Thus was born the Sashbear Foundation, which they named in honour of their daughter, to help people struggling with mental illness and their families.

Last Thursday, Sashbear was in Ottawa for the first of a series of cross-country walks to raise awareness and support for people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and their families. The foundation also hoped to galvanize funding support to keep its mental health and suicide prevention program going.

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When Sasha Courey was suffering with BPD, the family had no idea what was wrong. They saw she was highly emotional and sensitive, and it wasn’t until they found therapy in Boston that Sasha began to improve. Courey says children with the condition, especially in their teens, tend to have intense, unstable emotions they have difficulty managing. They are highly sensitive, prone to overthinking what’s happening around them, and small inconsequential things can set them off.

They have trouble communicating with others. The spectrum runs from yelling, screaming and throwing things, to cutting themselves because of their inability to cope with their intense emotions. Sometimes, as in the case of Sasha, who was 20 when she died, they take their own lives. BPD affects between two and six per cent of the population, and about 10 per cent of people with the illness commit suicide.

The fundamental problem, Courey says, is that parents don’t often know what’s wrong with their children, and help is hard to find. At school, teachers would explain away the condition as teenage angst. Sometimes, they would say the behaviour was an attempt to seek attention, and would often suggest “tough love” as a remedy. While therapy came too late to help Sasha, Courey hopes it won’t be too late for other parents whose children are struggling with BPD.

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The foundation runs a free peer-to-peer behaviour therapy program called family connections, which teaches family members how to support loved ones with BPD and help them regain emotional balance. It has been around for more than 10 years, and is helping about 10,000 family members across the country. The program depends on donations from family members but it is constrained by lack of resources. “Imagine if we had sustainable funding. We could do so much more,” Courey said.

At the walk was Rita MacLean, a mother whose two children had BPD. For a long time, the family didn’t know what was wrong. She recalls children coming home from school tense and uncommunicative, and sometimes it would take a good two-hour “debriefing” to calm things down. The impact on families can be devastating.

MacLean says she knew the Coureys and, talking to them, began to realize what her own family problem was all about. They began to participate in family connection programs and things began to improve. MacLean says families don’t often don’t talk about mental issues, until somebody is brave enough to speak up. Then it triggers action from others.

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The need for support for the foundation cannot be overstated, MacLean says. “When you go into an emergency department with a broken arm, they treat you; but it is not straightforward, your problem is not visible,” she says. “It is not about getting a prescription and sending you home with medication. This is talk therapy and it is amazing how powerful those words can be to diffuse a situation, instead of escalating it.”

Indeed, so valued is the foundation’s work that mental health institutions such as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the Canadian Mental Health Association have used its services.

Among those who showed up to offer support was Ottawa Centre MP Yasir Naqvi. He said there is still stigma around mental health, and groups like Sashbear must be appreciated. Mental health is an issue that has touched many of us in different ways, and we should be grateful for organizations like Sashbear. They deserve our support.

Mohammed Adam is an Ottawa journalist and commentator. Reach him at [email protected]. Reach the Sashbear Foundation here.

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