Overcoming mental health stigma, one step at a time

Winter 2015

Ravi Gupta grew up amid the hustle and bustle of Mumbai, India – one of most populous cities in the world. According to Ravi, the competitive atmosphere within such a dense population proved to be a pressure cooker for some. While he was in school, he recalls peers who would contemplate suicide upon receiving poor marks on a midterm.

“You had to become a professional – an engineer, a doctor, a lawyer, etc. – or else you were classed,” he explains. “If you didn’t become a white collar professional then it changed your economic and social future.”

A high-achiever in his own right, Ravi immigrated to Canada in 1995, where he completed a second science degree before embarking on a successful career in research and project management. He also met and married his wife, Beth.

But despite Ravi’s outward success, on the inside, a dark current of depression that had started as a stream of sadness in adolescence, had begun to swell until, in 2012, it overtook him in a wave of despair. He sought medical help and through physician referral he became an outpatient in LHSC’s Mental Health Care Program.

“I can’t recall what I thought about mental illness before it became a part of my life,” says Ravi. “But can tell you that depression is not a choice – it’s a very real chemical imbalance in the brain that affects people, physically and mentally. When you’re depressed, it feels like the atmospheric pressure is pushing you down. You can’t even get
out of the chair. You know what the right thing is to do, but you can’t.”

According to LHSC Psychiatrist Dr. Richard Owen, while those who suffer from mental illnesses, such as depression, may feel isolated and stigmatized, they are anything but alone. “Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses,” he says. “When you consider that one in 10 of us will suffer from depression, you realize that it’s more common than most illnesses people will experience.”

According to Dr. Owen, having a family history of mooddisorders also increases one’s likelihood of facing a similar diagnosis. This was reinforced in Ravi’s family – his mother had suffered from bi-polar disorder and all three of his siblings had sought help for mental health issues.

Once at LHSC, Ravi met with Dr. Owen for an assessment, which included a review of medications and therapies to see which might be helpful.

“At LHSC, patients are assessed by a consultant psychiatrist in the ambulatory program, where we have access to a wide range of therapies,” explains Dr. Owen. “For those who are referred here as outpatients, [such as Ravi], if the patient’s condition worsens, there is the option to be admitted to the inpatient unit, where they will be seen by the same physician who was seeing them as an outpatient. There’s continuity of care, which is great for the patient.”

He adds, “We also practice an interdisciplinary approach with many health practitioners, including nurses, therapists and psychiatrists who are all working together for the benefit of the patient.”

LHSC Occupational Therapist Jan Kernaghan is a member of the interdisciplinary team at LHSC who helps run the Dialectic Behavioural Therapy
(DBT) program.

“In a simple sense, ‘dialectic’ means that there is more than one way to look at things,” says Kernaghan. “In our society, we can get stuck in a black-or-white, all-or-nothing kind of perspective and DBT is all about investigating how there is more than one way to see something. There’s more than one correct path and we look at how individuals find that middle ground.”

Ravi says that DBT therapy played an instrumental role in changing his outlook and providing him with tools and resources to help him manage depression, so that today he is able to see many situations in a different, kinder light.

“Since coming to LHSC, I’ve grown as a person,” he says. “I have a more active social life and I’m better able to let go of anger. I can communicate better in my relationships. I have a different perspective. DBT teaches you that there are many different perspectives and makes you question if there is a right way to do things
or are there just different ways to do things Just because something is different, it doesn’t make it wrong.”

Ravi has also come to recognize that his mental health journey is an ongoing process, with peaks and valleys.

“There is a whole spectrum of mental health,” he explains. “Some forms can be cured with short treatment and some require ongoing management.”

Ravi is also quick to point to the power of conversation and the need to eradicate stigma. It’s a sentiment that his wife, Beth, echoes. “I have a history of mental health illness in
my family as well,” she says. “I know it’s not something to be ashamed of, but I still see shock on people’s faces when I openly discuss it. The thing is, by not hiding in the shadows, those who are suffering may become more likely to seek help and therefore may recover faster, too.”

It is with these points in mind that Ravi has embarked on a fundraising and awareness campaign, aimed at breaking down the barriers to proper health care and well-being for those affected by mental illness. The decision to make the fundraiser a hike was a strategic one.

“One part of treatment is exercise,” he says. “A hike or a walk provides the benefits of giving people a reason to exercise, get outdoors and be social. Because it is low-impact and non-competitive, it’s also accessible to a wide variety of people.”

Through the Hike for Happiness, Ravi is encouraging the community and society to help end the stigma, one step at a time.

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Ravi and his wife Beth smile in the sunshine while walking the Medway Trails.