Help Wanted: It’s Time To Take Mental Illness Seriously

If mental illness is not embarrassing — then why the fuck am I embarrassed?

Why do I feel like I want to crawl under a damn rock every time I have a panic attack, or start sweating in public, or any other quirk that can come flying out of me.

Generally, it’s not a big deal. It passes. But whenever I let anyone have a looky-loo into that part of my life I feel like I’ve just farted in church… or like… I don’t know… some place clean, or something — like an Ikea.

A couple of months ago, I went to the emergency room for the first time due to mental illness. I’ve never done that before. I was going through some pretty extraordinarily stressful personal stuff at the time, so that helped trigger the feelings of panic. Ordinarily, I’m usually good at masking or trudging through. This time was a bit different.

I thought it might be a useful exercise to share what it’s like to have a mental illness “emergency” here in my home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.

Up to then I had been battling depression on and off since August. I’m just going to come out and say that. I have. There it is. Tadaw!

And in the weeks prior to my trip to emerge I had at least one panic attack every day.

Which, for those of you who know about panic attacks, is a hell of a lot to deal with.

So, I’m chugging along like a tank. I’m getting work done, I’m going to the gym, I’m writing a blog, I’m helping friends out with their problems. And then one dayI get knocked over like a tonne of bricks.

And I do mean, knocked over.

I had one of the worst panic attacks I’ve had in my life. And I’ve been having them since I was 12.

I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t concentrate. I was crying to break my heart. I relinquished control to my brain, and it wasn’t doing a good job. And at that moment I knew that I had to do something. So, I had a friend drive me to the Emergency unit at the Health Science Centre here in St. John’s.

I checked myself in, I told the nurse on staff that I needed to see a psychiatric nurse. She brought me inside the room with her while she handled a number of other patients.

When she was finished she asked me a series of questions about my mental state, took my vitals and then told me to have a seat in the chair across from her where she could see me.

You see, I wasn’t allowed to move from that chair, not even to go to the can. And I had to go to the can pretty bad — sorry, TMI.

And so I sat there. For three hours.

There I was, for all the world to see in the hallway — about as vulnerable as I’ve ever been, listening to people describe their bowel movements to the triage nurse in front of me, or how they “finds it in their lower back”, or “me knee’s right gimpy”.

There was a reason for the three hour wait.

There was one mental health nurse on staff that morning. One nurse. For the entire hospital. Now, if you wanna talk about crazy — let’s start there.

But, nevertheless, I waited.

Eventually a smiling woman came out to greet me.

She was wonderful. She asked me a whole range of questions, took me seriously, showed empathy, and made me feel comfortable with being there. Which is a hell of a feat, because this is the room I was in.


After our chat she recommended that I be transferred to the Waterford Hospital to chat with a clinical psychiatrist there. And so, off we went in a cab to the Waterford.

Once there, I was immediately met with a young intern who escorted me into a small room.


I’m not saying that psych wards are dark and dingy places where all hope goes to die — but guys, how about a painting or two? Seriously, would it kill ya to chuck up a Van Gogh or a Picasso.


This was her first day on the job. And I was the first interview that she had conducted all on her own. But she was very kind and understanding as we ran through another list of questions.

I’ve been on some form of anti-anxiety/depression med since I was 17. Name one, chances are it’s passed my lips. From Ativan to Zoloft, and Paxil to Efexor. If it exists, it’s been in me. And not once, NOT ONCE, has anybody officially diagnosed me with anything.

That’s 22 years of medication and not a single person told me what it was for. I knew I had anxiety, but there’s a lot of different kinds of anxiety.

When the resident on call that day came to visit me, we chatted even more. She expressed her condolences for me having to live my life in this way.

Which, to be honest, I’ve never really thought of before. I guess when you’re going through it you don’t really think of “hey, I wonder what it would be like to not be anxious?” Because, it’s all I know. And I never once thought of it as something to be sad about, it just was what it was.

She asked me to describe my symptoms and how I felt. This blog has been a big help in self-reflection so I was able to accurately describe to her the sensations in anxiety, the intrusive thoughts I’d sometimes have about my own self-worth, images that sometimes flicker in my mind like an old run down Kodak projector — that’s when she asked me if I’d ever been diagnosed with anything.

“No,” I said.

“That’s unbelievable,” she replied.

“You’re telin’ me,” I smirked.

Tilting her head to one side, and staring into my eyes with caution she asked, “what do you know about PTSD?”

“I know that it’s fucking complicated,” I mumbled.

I had checked almost every box.

Then it all started to rain down on me. The intrusive thoughts, the visions of my childhood popping up like an unwanted ad, the thoughts about the death of my brother.

Every year around late August I would get sad. And every year I would tell the person I happened to be with not to worry, “I just get a little weird around this time”. September 6th was the date of my brother’s death, and every year the window around that date turned me into a different person, and I never once put it together.

It seems as though I had chosen that date to not only mourn my brother, but to also heap all of the other traumatic things that I have experienced in my life — bullying being one of those things.

Immediately we began to hatch a plan, “I want every single support that’s available to try and figure this thing out,” I said.

And so they enrolled me in support groups for both trauma and anxiety, referrals to a new psychiatrist and psychologist. I wanted everything. As they say around here “whatever she can suffer” — which is Newfoundland for “whatever it is you’ve got”.

These services exist. And that’s fantastic news.

But all of these services have a 1 to 2 to sometimes a 3 year waitlist attached to them.

Now, the programs ARE out there. So, there is hope for treatment. All of the people I spoke to throughout this entire ordeal were INCREDIBLY helpful, kind and empathetic. They truly were remarkable.

But it made me think. I can manage my anxiety — in the sense that I know I’m not going to go off the deep end. I work in a high stress field (advertising) and there are deadlines to make and jobs to get done, that stuff doesn’t freak me out at all. In fact, I kind of thrive on it.

But what if I couldn’t handle it? What if I was completely lost?

One thing that struck me was that after you visit emergency you are contacted immediately after by a nurse who does an assessment to see where you best slot into regarding services. I was told that if I missed the phone call for any reason I would be taken off the list and my file would be closed.

If I missed one call. One.

That made me think of all the people who may not be that cognitively aware of their own illness. People who may have difficulty concentrating, or fear contact with the outside world. If any of those people missed that call, everything goes to hell in a hand-basket pretty fucking swiftly.

And they left there. Alone. And failed by a system that is so overtaxed that a phone call can be the difference between getting help or not, and sometimes even life or death.

One common theme permeated throughout my travels that day. Every single person I spoke to told me how awful it is that there isn’t more funding in place for mental health. From one psychiatric nurse on staff in the province’s largest hospital, to the multi-year wait list to see a psychiatrist.

It’s deplorable. And it needs to change.

When I read the news today that our local health board were cutting positions in the mental health field that they felt were not needed, my blood boiled and my heart broke all at the same time.

If we, as a society, really and truly care about people who suffer from mental illness, why is it that we continue to neglect them. And when I say “them” I mean “us”.

Bell Let’s Talk is a campaign that happens once a year in Canada where everyone tweets out something and hashtags it with #BellLetsTalk. And it raises money and awareness on that one day. It’s also become quite trendy with politicians of all stripes. But it seems that policy makers and those that hold the purse strings stop short of making real change happen in the area of mental health.

And that, as somebody who lives with a mental illness, needs to change.

Mental health awareness and investment needs to extend past one day, and it needn’t be sponsored by or piggy-backed on by a major telecommunications company to fulfill some kind of slick community outreach mandate.

It needs to come from the people in power. They need the guts and the forethought to say “enough is enough, let’s help these people. Let’s stop the naval gazing and the tossing about of buzzwords, and let’s do something.”

To the people that I met that day. Thank you. You changed my life and made me feel heard and understood.

In my mind, that’s a feeling too good not to share.



30 thoughts on “Help Wanted: It’s Time To Take Mental Illness Seriously

      1. Thank you for sharing this story. I had an almost identical experience and this spoke to me on so many levels. Changes need to be made and it is incredibly frustrating and heartbreaking.

      2. Hi Dave,
        I’ve been reading your blog for some time and always enjoy your perspective. Thank you for sharing your experiences and please keep doing it.

  1. I can completely relate. Bravo to you and your courage! As I was reading your words, it was as if they were coming out of my own mouth. Different backgrounds, but my experience with panic attacks, depression and anxiety were all the same. Even your trip to the emerg and then bringing transferred. I however was very lucky, I didn’t miss that phone call and was seen within a few weeks of being diagnosed and then into support groups. My experience with the medical field helped tremendously and the thoughts that there are people who have to wait years or get no help at all sickens me. Mental illness is real and it shouldn’t be pushed aside……period!

  2. All I can say to this is YASSSSSSS!!! I also struggle with anxiety and panic attacks, and have had similar experiences in Ontario. Though there seems to be some more social awareness of mental health, the funding and support that mental healthcare receives is so so shit considering the vast amounts of people who need help, and the severity of the issue.

  3. Mr. Sullivan

    You writing is excellent as it is able to convey the depth and bewilderment and still the hope in a difficult journey.

    Thank you.

    Lani Vetter

    On Mon, Apr 18, 2016 at 1:54 PM, Dave Sullivans Blog wrote:

    > Dave Sullivan posted: “If mental illness is not embarrassing — then why > the fuck am I embarrassed? Why do I feel like I want to crawl under a damn > rock every time I have a panic attack, or start sweating in public, or any > other quirk that can come flying out of me. Generally,” >

  4. Dave: From the guy (me) you publicly accused of wearing a ‘tin-foil’ hat – vernacular for ‘nuts’ – and who has battled mental illness for 40 f-ing years, and talked about it publicly for 20, you are one BIG, self-involved, whining baby. Grow-up.

    1. Geoff, I didn’t call you “nuts” at all. I believe you’re referring to your run for Mayor? I think it was. I was commenting on your tactics for election. It had nothing to do with any perceived mental illness. In fact, I had no idea you had a mental illness. And if you did and I knew about it, there’s no way I would have insulted you about it. I regret that you feel that I’m a “BIG, self-involved, whining baby”. That’s unfortunate. I’ve not chosen for people to read this blog. They just kinda do. And so, I thought I’d use it to shine the same light you were, just in a different way. I’m sorry if my political commentary hurt or upset you. My apologies for that. But, in no way, was I attacking you over an illness that I was unaware of you having in the first place. I wish you well. I really do.

      1. It was not ‘political’ commentary, in my opinion, it read and was written as personal and you know it but wont say it. But my point is…perhaps you now know what it is ‘like’ to put yourself out there…and have people take swipes at you. So, how does it feel? No need for a protracted answer, Dave. Best of luck.

      2. I’m sorry that you felt it was personal. I’m a comedian, or was. And if you sift through my twitter account you’ll see that I roast municipal politicians all the time. I don’t tend to touch provincial folks. This had nothing to do with your illness (which I was unaware of), just the process of municipal politics. I regret that it affected you in that way. If you would ever like to talk face to face, please don’t hesitate to email me at I’m sorry that you took things personally. All the best. Dave

  5. Thank you Dave. Thank you for sharing. The situation is deplorable. I have experienced it.

    I see the stigma changing; but it is slow. Disease is disease. It attacks our bodies, which translates to a result. The result can be visual in the skin, or the ability to move, or the ability to think & cope.

    As much as media/the public need to change their perspective on mental illness; so must the ‘patient’. People suffering with mental illness need to speak out, just as you have done.
    It has taken me a long time to ditch the embarrassment and shame. Things don’t become ‘acceptable’ until they are out in the open, constantly.

    You will never walk the road of recovery, if you can’t take the first step.

  6. Thank you Dave for sharing your experience, I know that people and suffering and waiting for that one phone call that they hope will change their lives. Why is it that mental illness is treated like the patient can control it and do something about it ? Reaching out for help can be such a challenge, filled with hope – only to be told “go back to your bed, pull the cover over your head and wait for the phone to ring”, life is passing people by, please, please, please hear their pleas and make a change is all we are asking for, dignity and respect.

  7. Dave, you are a brave soul … thanks for going out on that limb to share your experience! Mental illness has made an incredible impact on my life as I lost my mother, Carmelita, to suicide after her years of struggling with bi-polar disorder … Every time I share this in any public way, I feel the need to explain her life more so as protect her memory from those who would make assumptions about how she lived her life, thinking that they will assume she lived some unstable, unproductive life, swinging madly between extreme emotions, leaving traumatized loved ones in her wake. She didn’t … she lived an amazing life as a outgoing, fun-loving community-minded woman who was a compassionate, empathetic nurse who went above and beyond for her patients, bringing them home-cooked meals when they weren’t eating, housing their relatives visiting from around the bay at our house. As her children, we never saw her have a depressed day until the last several months of her life; though she struggled for years, she and my father protected us somehow from the depressed periods until those last months of her life. Everyone was shocked when she committed suicide, not knowing her struggles with mental illness, seeing only the vivacious woman who loved life and reached out to those in need.

    Because no one saw her struggle, Carmelita represents those many people who just live with mental illness somehow, who struggle in obscurity, who put on the brave face and get on with things while slowly dying inside.

    She was lucky enough to avail of some mental health services and treatments; being in the health care profession, she was likely more informed about her condition and the options and possible treatments available. Sadly, in the end those treatments couldn’t save her. But perhaps she was able to survive longer than others who were not informed in the same way. I think about all those others who don’t know how or are unable or too sick to help themselves. And to think that they could get far enough toward accessing the limited resources available and then lose access to those resources by missing a phone call!

    I want to commit myself to this cause somehow, to lead people toward awareness, to advocate on behalf of those who suffer and to call those “policy makers and those that hold the purse strings” to account in providing more services. But I honestly don’t know where to begin or how to get involved where I can make an impact.

    Dave, all blessings to you for the proactive role you have taken in advocating for yourself and getting the supports you need and for speaking out on this issue to bring awareness.


    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story, Micheal. I had no idea. My heart goes out to you. You speak so eloquently about your Mother and her challenges. I feel honoured to have heard it. Thank you.

  8. Decision makers have got to be ignorant to take from mental health. If they would put more into mental health, I’m willing to bet that would actually lower costs all across the board. I keep saying that if I could get my head balanced, I wouldn’t be obese. Obesity will likely cascade into other illnesses over the course of my lifetime, costing more and more, and there are many more like me. While for me it reads as obesity, for someone else poor mental health might read as migraines, another a bad back, etc. By and large, the system as it is seems backwards

  9. wow. i respect thay you are so open and forthright with your struggles and experiences. reading one of the comments above, and to paraphrase, i have always “. . . struggled in obscurity . . . put on a brave face and got on with life while slowly dying inside.” i am the one who is always there for others, being loving, supportive, positive and encouraging, (secretly for my sake as well as theirs) . . . i *do* feel shame for how i struggle within. though i pretty much know my reasons – insights from years of Self-reflection, and my actual memories – i never was officially diagnosed. just another patient at the general doctor on anxiety medication.

  10. I live it everyday for years ,you are abut cast to other people because ,they don’t know what your going with you so they walk away from you , with the dirty look? 😤😡😠😒😳💀😬☹️😫😱😰😓😴. 💯💯. 😎🇨🇦😎

  11. You just never know what battles a person is fighting, externally or internally. We hear this all the time, but still make snap judgments about people and interactions. This post serves as a great reminder to be kind to each other.

  12. Hope all is well at your end Dave.

    In your corner bud…….

    Looking east (from Ottawa) sending you healthing vibes…

  13. Wow! What can I say! You’ve pretty much said what I’ve been trying to say, and explain, for years! Right down to the whole time of the year for remembering your brother!
    Strong words indeed! Let’s all come together, and do what we can for mental health!
    God Bless you!

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