On Wednesday September 29, 2016 I attended the annual CMHA Durham AGM and Keynote speaker event. This years event featured a unique speaker in Mr. Stéphane Grenier a retired Lieutenant Colonel from the Canadian Armed Forces.
Prior to attending the event I reviewed the description of the keynote on CMHA Durham's website. It described retired Lt. Colonel Grenier as having served for 29 years highlighted by several tours including in Rwanda and Afghanistan. It mentioned that he endured undiagnosed post-traumatic stress syndrome and that his experience led him to take a personal interest in the way the Canadian Military dealt with mental illness.
Having read this short intro (and recently having been nominated to take up the 22 Push-up Challenge in support of service men and women battling PTSD) I expected a speech about the horrors endured by service men and women and the long term impacts it causes. I expected to hear about the need to re-humanize mental healthcare in order to make it more accessible to service men and women given the tough nature of their occupation.
I couldn't have been more wrong. While those topics would have been compelling. While those statements are true for many of our brave men and women in the armed forces, Mr. Grenier's speech transcended the notion of PTSD as an isolated and clinical illness. The notion that the military and service men and women who experience mental illness in relation to PTSD or otherwise, are somehow different and separate from the rest of society. He humanized the concepts of mental illness as well as military and helped the audience see the parallels in every workplace.
In fact Mr. Grenier spoke of his time in the military as it were any other workplace. He was like any of us, wondering through our work day, run down and fatigued by our own minds. He spoke about how in his darker moments he'd been tempted to give an honest answer when casually asked "How are you today?" at the office elevator. Just to see the reaction when he responded with anything other than a token "Fine". He chickened out at the unknown of that response. Acknowledging the awkwardness that comes from openness around mental illness. I'd come to learn that Mr. Grenier had battled back from the brink having planned and nearly completed several suicide attempts. His wife catching him in what would be his final attempt. Despite regular therapy sessions and a good relationship with his therapist Mr. Grenier still struggled mightily in between appointments. Finally, a friend and colleague realized something was wrong and offered a person to confide in. Ultimately helping him off the proverbial ledge.
That experience eventually led to Mr. Grenier working alongside military doctors and developing peer-to-peer programs for the Canadian Military designed to help humanize mental illness through a non-clinical approach. He introduced terms like "Stress Injury" making mental illness more approachable for the average person in our armed forces.
During his talk he said something that really got my attention. He said something like, "No one dies, no one commits suicide in the doctors office." It hung in my ears ringing for a few seconds after he said it. It hit home. He added how all the campaigns and ribbons and buttons and charitable donations were great. How they were important. Yet in all the campaigns on awareness we've still haven't put a dint in the number of suicides that happen each year. Something else is missing. Theres so much focus on the clinical side of mental illness. Clinical terms, clinical processes. Look at any mental health organizations website. You'll find terms like "anxiety disorders and phobias, attention deficit disorder, bipolar disorder, depression". You'll find paths to assistance start with your family doctor. Supporting a loved one involves routines and encouraging good nutrition and sleep. What you don't find is the human aspect. The non-clinical component. The part that helps someone decide to get help in the first place. The people who are their supporting someone between doctors appointments.
Mr. Grenier brought up that we all have it in us to provide that support. No one teaches us how to greet a colleague returning from bereavement leave. We just know to show compassion. Ask them how they're feeling, offer our condolences. Ask, "Is there anything I can do for you?". We just know because we've seen it since we were children.
So after he retired from the armed forces Mr. Grenier started MH Innovations. His social enterprise works with organizations to help them develop workplace peer-to-peer support programs. He's made his life's work about helping organizations identify and develop ideal candidates to provide peer-to-peer support within the workplace. Focusing on humanizing mental illness and recovery. Understanding the barriers cause by the clinical narrative associated with mental illness and creating a social, cultural narrative making supportive roles more accessible to the average person.
Mr. Grenier's story of transition from victim to mental health advocate and leader was inspiring. His actions to improve mental illness and recovery is the real take-away. We all have skills and a certain learned emotional intelligence that helps us navigate relationships. Help us support someone in need when they are ill or when they are grieving. Help us empathize. Let's use that skill set to support each other through mental health crisis. Through stress injuries. Through trying and tough times.
About Retired Lieutenant Colonel Stéphane Grenier | Mental Health Innovator
Stephane Grenier is a former member of the Canadian Military who retired as a Lieutenant Colonel after serving for just over 29 years. He participated in several Canadian missions overseas, most notably nine months in Rwanda in 1994/95 and six months in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2007, as well as numerous shorter deployments to Cambodia, Kuwait, the Arabian Gulf, Lebanon, and Haiti, to name a few.
In hopes of challenging society’s traditional outlook regarding mental health, Grenier has spent much of his career redefining how workplaces and individuals should care for and support those affected by mental health problems. By developing, implementing, and managing peer based programs aimed at reducing stigma, Grenier provides leaders and managers a firm understanding of how to deal with the fast growing realities hindering today’s brain based economy. His non clinical approach offers simple and pragmatic ways of giving purpose to the lived experience of members of workplaces and allows organizations to start down the path of systemic wellness and re-humanized workplaces where mental health stigma is no longer a barrier to recovery.