Climbing mountains to raise awareness of child and adolescent mental illness

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In July of 2011, a dedicated group of individuals, community members and staff at Markham Stouffville Hospital began their journey to raise awareness of child and adolescent mental illness while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. To date the group has raised $450,000 and is continuing its fundraising efforts to support the expansion of the mental health program at the hospital.  This is the diary from one of the climbers. 

The last five months of my life have been an experience like I never could have imagined working in health care as a mental health nurse. When I decided to participate in the Climb to Conquer – The Stigma of Child and Adolescent Mental Health, I knew that I would be taking on the challenge of a lifetime. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro would be a physical, emotional and spiritual test but also one that would be incredibly valuable, as I would be doing my part to raise awareness and funds for children and young adults struggling with mental illness.

Once I made the commitment to do the climb, the next thing was to start talking about it – with my family, friends, colleagues and members of the community. It was through these conversations that I learned about the struggles that so many people face on a daily basis. Talking about climbing a mountain was a starting point for discussions about the mountains that so many people climb in their lives every day – the struggle to live with mental illness.

Often when I told people that I was doing the climb their first reaction was, “are you crazy?” It was at this moment that I had a small sampling of the stigma that came with being called crazy and I realized the hurt and pain that so many of my patients had lived with for so many years.

I soon realized that climbing this mountain was as much about my own journey of learning and discovery as it was about making the physical climb.

Beginning our journey

Gathering at the airport prior to our departure toTanzaniawas a very surreal experience. The group of 18 climbers gathered – some I had befriended over the past few months while we trained, while others were people who I would become friends with over our journey. We were from a wide variety of backgrounds – a nurse, hospital COO, foundation director, television personality, mental health worker, physician, community member – the list goes on. What we shared was the desire and commitment to raise money for the hospital and make life easier for people living with mental illness.

Once we arrived inTanzania, we had an opportunity to visit a local hospital. This was very meaningful for the entire group. We immediately felt for each patient who was in the hospital and we also remembered the exceptional system of health care we have at home inCanada. It was at that moment that I decided to leave behind any negative thoughts or feelings that I had – I was finished being a ‘complainer’.

As the time grew closer for us to start our climb, my feelings of anxiety started to increase. I had read about the effects of altitude sickness and knew that five people die each year trying to climb the mountain. I also knew that, with the support of the team and our expedition leader, we could overcome the obstacles. I again remembered my many patients who lived with debilitating fear and anxiety. I was reminded that we all have obstacles to overcome in our lives.

The climb

When I was approaching Kibo Hut at the mountain’s base, I watched as dark clouds quickly moved in and shrouded a mountain that is 5,685 metres at summit peak. I was standing directly in front of it, yet could not see a trace of its craggy intimidating features. Had I told you it was there behind the clouds you might not have believed me. But the mountain hadn’t moved or changed, only the clouds. Mental illness works in similar ways. The clouds are like symptoms – our crisis of confidence, emotions, thoughts, actions and barriers – they all change and move through us. We all have a part to play or a way to participate within our communities – to help one another, while the clouds pass.

Slowly and slowly, pole, pole (in Swahili). That was the pace up the mountain. This was not a race, there was no prize for getting to the top first – the reward was in the journey. The journey would take us six days to summit and during that time we saw scenery more interesting, exotic and diverse than I ever could have imagined.

Throughout the climb, there were some wonderful moments spent with the other climbers. During dinner one evening, a climber with a huge heart began to share his personal reasons for climbing and asked others what motivated each of us to be here on the mountain. I listened as people shared and expressed their stories, their emotions. The moment was magical, transforming and reassuring. I was with people who understood mental illness, who were representing the people you and I know, and will come to know, who have struggled in so many ways. I was sitting alongside a group who cared enough to dedicate themselves as ambassadors, putting this mission of awareness and child and adolescent mental health first before anything else in their lives.

I took many things with me on my climb, but the most significant was the spirit of Mac B. Mac was a young adolescent who committed suicide four years ago. I did not know Mac but I met his mother Donna in the community while fundraising for the climb. Hearing a mother share the story of her son’s suicide was extremely moving. I cried with her, sharing her grief for a young person who I had never met. The purpose of the climb became so clear to me. Mac’s spirit led me in the climb to openly discuss suicide and mental illness at the top of Mt Kilimanjaro, to help kids feel as if they could have options in their life as opposed to death and that they could feel support as opposed to stigma.

This experience has been more profoundly rewarding than I could ever have imagined. Coming back down the mountain and returning to my familiar life, I have kept the spirit of Mac with me. The motivation that I found on the mountain also stays with me. I have only one voice to support others but, collectively with the voices of others, I know we will accomplish great things for our young people. As a community we can remove the stigma of mental illness if we climb mountains together.

For more information about the climb, visit www.climbtoconquer.mshf.on.ca