For some people living with mental illness, there is no home for the holidays.
That meant no family Christmas dinner or opening gifts last Sunday and no fun times with friends on New Year’s Eve this weekend.
“For a lot of our people it can be a very sad time of year, some of the folks do not have close contact with their family and now is especially when they are missed the most,” said executive director Dennis Tottenham of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s South Okanagan Similkameen branch.
“Often family, sometimes because of the illness or the behaviour resulting from the illness, have distanced themselves from the person and sometimes the person with the mental illness does not feel supported and chooses not to be involved with the family.
“There are a lot of reasons why families get alienated, but the sad part is that it does happen.”
He blames much of the problem on the stigma still attached to the condition and the general public’s lack of understanding about it.
“I think if you have cancer or heart disease it seems like they are more of an acceptable illness, but if it’s mental illness people don’t understand it. They’re afraid and they don’t know how to act or support a person,” he said. “There are also a lot of misconceptions like the person has brought it upon themselves.”
John Boles knows first hand the difficulties associated with the illness, which is a large part of the reason he has given so much of his time to help others.
“I know a couple of people who are not doing very well at all right now,” said Boles, who works in clubhouse kitchen.
“I know a few people whose families have literally disowned them because they have a mental illness and they do not do well at all and it’s cause for great distress at this time of year.
“There are even some folks that have family who are in great distress at Christmas, because with no means of support they can’t get anything for their family.”
Enter Unity House, which is operated under the direction of the CMHA.
At the Main Street location, the facility’s 110 members, all with some mental health issues, can find companionship in a caring, nurturing environment.
During this holiday season, 40 volunteers from the ranks of the membership will be cooking up 150 turkey dinners for the others.
Boles credits his volunteer work with helping him get through some of the tough times.
“For me personally, it gave me drive and direction because I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have any focus and it gave me focus,” he said. “At this time of year it seems like a spiral cycle: they (mentally ill) dwell on it, it gets worse, they dwell on it, it gets worse, and a lot of the time they end up having to go to the hospital or worse.”
For that reason, he believes the value of Unity House and its many programs — especially from a social perspective — is immense.
Another member agreed about the value of participating: “Volunteering at the clubhouse gives me a sense of purpose, a reason to get up in the morning.”
The meals are actually served all year long, lunches seven days a week, dinner twice and there is even take out.
Especially helpful this year was the generous donation of new ovens to the facility by the Community Foundation of the South Okanagan.
“We’re very grateful for this and the ovens have been put to good use over Christmas that’s for sure,” said the executive director.
Tottenham pointed out it was not that long ago at least some of the clubhouse members would have been institutionalized and never have had the opportunity to enjoy any sort of life outside of those walls.
He believes through organizations like the CMHA there have been positive changes.
“At Canadian Mental Health we focus on resilience and recovery rather than on the illness,” said the executive director. “With medication and support services and an accepting community, many people (with mental illness) can live totally independent. It doesn’t have to be a debilitating chronic condition, and these people can be part of the community.”
He agreed providing a sense of belonging helps individuals as they transition into everyday life.
“This means a positive approach, encouraging people to volunteer and be part of the clubhouse and to support each other in a caring way,” said Tottenham.
With better understanding and a willingness to accept people for who they are, he believes a lot more people with mental illness can have a better life and a happy holiday.