September 27, 2012

Let us be persistent in hope

As published in The Erin Advocate

I am not comfortable in the role of victim. I would rather be known for the things I do, rather than the things that have happened to me.

After the death of my son Thomas last May, I was determined to generate more public discussion about mental illness, which led me to speak at McMillan Park, on World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10). Here is the text of those personal reflections:

Thank you to my wife Jean for her strength and patience, and to my son Michael for his courage. I think this ordeal has brought us closer together.

Thank you to everyone who has reached out to support us. Not just those close to us, but remote acquaintances, total strangers, and those whose job it is to comfort the afflicted. It is not just a job though, when you have to confront life and death issues, it is a special calling. All that reaching out makes us a strong, caring community.

If we are going to fight the battle, to prevent suicides, then we need to know our enemies. And death is not our enemy. We know that death is certain – we can only delay it. And we know that our species is weak, vulnerable to illnesses.

We can't change the reality that suffering is part of the human condition. But we can improve the quality of life for those with mental illnesses, whether it is a brief crisis or a struggle over many decades. And we can also change the way we think and behave about these issues.

With so much suffering, and over 4,000 Canadian lives lost to suicide each year, it is unacceptable to sweep mental illness under the carpet, as a shameful secret. It is all around us, and we have to face it with courage.

Fear and guilt – these are our enemies. We cannot put them to death, since they are woven right through us, but we can put them in their place, and not allow them to rule our lives. There is healthy fear, the type that protects us from danger. But then there is unreasonable fear, blown out of all proportion to the actual threat.

When our children succeed in the ways of this world, we are tempted to take credit.  "We must have been doing something right!" But when they are crushed by the ways of this world, and their own fears, we ask, "Where did we go wrong?"

If we actually did something wrong, we might feel a natural guilt. But why are we tempted to feel guilty about things that are out of our control or that happen in spite of our best efforts. That guilt is not healthy.

We all walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Death is difficult, but the shadow that surrounds it is much worse. So we have to be brave. And we are all fortunate, because love does not come to an end – it is constantly renewed.

When Thomas was eight years old, he was diagnosed with a birth defect, a flaw in his aorta. He needed surgery, and had to understand the risk that he might not survive. He was afraid, but he was brave. The surgery went fine, but what if he had died then? Emotionally, it would have been more efficient for us. It was out of our control – not our fault.

When Thomas was 14, he came to us and said he had urges to kill himself. He was afraid, but he was brave. We scrambled to help him, and never gave up hope, but I wonder what it would have been like for us if he had died then. If he had been afraid to speak to us, and just done it. It would have been simpler, but it would not have been better.

For those with a loved one at risk, try to make a deal with them, to come and talk when things get bad, no matter what. Tell them you can handle it, even if you are not sure. We made that deal with Thomas, and he helped us understand his world. We helped him take responsibility for his own happiness and opened up options for him, and he helped us to be brave.

It was a privilege to accompany him in his struggles. Despite the frustrations and uncertainty, those ten years had many positive times, and he enriched our lives.

Eventually, Thomas could not keep up his end of the bargain. He was being crushed with pain, and he kept the worst of it away from us. He had decided to end his life, but he procrastinated for a long time, hoping for – hope. I don't think his final act was one of cowardice or selfishness. In his mind, it was an act of bravery.

The most difficult thing to accept is that suicide is a choice, a way to escape the pain of existing in this world, the result of a tortured reasoning process. If Thomas felt he had no chance of fitting in to this world, did he make the right choice? We don't think he did, because he had many options, but it was ultimately his choice to make.

Normally, humans are programmed to love life and fear death. But we are also programmed to avoid pain, and pain can change everything. When the socially acceptable treatments are not working well, self-treatment becomes a reality. Unfortunately, many self-treatments are destructive, and provide only short-term relief.

Patients need to take primary responsibility for their mental health, but they need a partnership with family members, friends, doctors, counsellors and the community. The goal is reduce sources of pain, and increase the capacity to cope with it.

This does not work well in an atmosphere of fear and secrecy. Being open and honest about mental illness will not cure it, but it will increase the opportunities for improvement. It is a tragedy that many families suffer in isolation, because of an illness they are not allowed to talk about.

Take all the help you can get from psychiatry, but do not put all your hopes there. Scientific understanding of brain disorders is very limited. The system is poorly funded, waiting times are long, and there is a heavy reliance on drugs. Educate yourself about different illnesses and strategies, and about the side effects and risks of medications.

There are no magic pills, and no special words from a trained professional that will make this go away. The best we can expect is some support for a natural healing process.

Don't let a loved one's illness drag you into despair. Get counselling for yourself and do whatever it takes to build up your strength for the journey.

Collectively, we can also be brave. It is estimated at least one in five Canadians each year will be affected by a mental illness, costing the economy $51 billion dollars annually. So it is encouraging that Canada this year has proclaimed a Mental Health Strategy, to improve access to support services.

We need to demand that this plan gets the funding it deserves. The same goes for the new Federal Framework for Suicide Prevention, now before the Senate. It will formally recognize suicide as a public health issue.

All the positive talk at the top end of the system needs to trickle down to the local level. We need support groups and access to treatment, close to where we live. Very close.

Most importantly, as individuals, let us be brave. Let us discuss the risk of suicide, as openly as we discuss the risk of death by cancer or heart disease. Let us be willing to ask for help when we need it, and accept it when it is offered. Let us reach out to those in need, and be persistent in hope.

September 26, 2012

Agency seeks regular food bank donations

As published in The Erin Advocate

As it launches its Thanksgiving Food Drive, East Wellington Community Services is hoping more people will consider making donations on a regular basis.

Special events in September brought in 1,000 pounds of food and more than $800 in financial support for the Food Bank.

"We are fortunate to have such a supportive community, filled with individuals, groups and organizations that continue to go above and beyond when help is required," said Erika Westcott, Manager of Client Services and Volunteers at EWCS. "We need to keep up the momentum – there is such on ongoing need."

Thanksgiving is a traditional time for an appeal, since people are more mindful of their prosperity. According to a recent Wellington County presentation, the median family income in Erin in 2010 was $97,400 (up 6.2% since 2008). That compares to the county median of $80,300, and the provincial median of $67,300.

The cost of living can put a severe strain on families, though, especially with the high cost of housing and our reliance on gasoline to get to distant workplaces.

"Some families are carrying very heavy debt loads, and may be a paycheque or two away from not being able to pay their mortgage," said EWCS Executive Director Nancy Henry. "If there is a loss of a job, or an illness in the family, or if someone needs retraining and their income is limited, we will very discretely provide supports for the family to get them through."

Non-perishable food is the primary need at the Food Bank, everything from soups, coffee, and noodles to canned fruit, canned fish and juice. Families in crisis receive food on a monthly basis.

Drop food off at the EWCS office at 45 Main Street in Erin (next to the liquor store). They can handle small quantities of garden produce, but call them at 519-833-9696 before you bring it. Also needed are personal products such as soap, deodorant, shampoo, toothbrushes and toothpaste.

Donations of money can also be directed to the Food Bank, partly for EWCS to buy needed supplies. Families in crisis may also receive a pre-paid card with a small credit, which they can use at the grocery store.

"This allows them the choice to figure out what they need," said Henry. "Needing food is only a symptom of other problems. Respect is such a huge issue. Everybody carries a burden."

Some people organize their charitable donations through the website, which offers the options of a one-time donation or regular monthly contributions through a credit card. It has a section to provide instructions on how the money is to be used. For a quick link to the EWCS section of canadahelps, go to

It is also worth noting that if you make a bulk purchase over $20 to donate needed food or supplies, such as cases of Kraft dinner, and bring in a receipt for that item alone, a tax receipt will be issued.

People are being creative in finding ways to help, such as donating to mark a special event,  or in someone's honour, or even in lieu of a birthday present, said Westcott. Local churches and service clubs also continue to provide valuable assistance.

The EWCS Active Adults Line Dancers have been collecting supplies for the food bank, and on Sept. 7, they presented EWCS with a $100 food donation.

On Sept. 8, ReMax Real Estate Centre in Erin had a “free BBQ for food donation” event between 11 am and 3 pm. People got a free hot dog and drink in return for a food or money donation. The event raised $100, plus 385 pounds of food.

Dawn and Anthony Pulver hosted their 12th Annual Community Golf Tournament and selected the food bank as the recipient of this fundraiser. The 68 golfers raised $644, and collected a truckload of non-perishable food items, weighing a total of 615 pounds.

EWCS thanks Hillsburgh Foodland, Erin Valu-Mart, Mundell’s, and Erin Country Crops for supplying food for the BBQ and all the people who donated tournament golf prizes.

Looking ahead, the agency will also be seeking support during its Christmas Hamper Program.

Fire chief gets fire engine red Ford

As published in The Erin Advocate

The Town went shopping for a fire engine red pick-up truck and opted for a Ford – even though the mayor admitted to be a "Dodge guy".

The four-door truck is to be used by Fire Chief Dan Callaghan as part of the first response to fires and serious medical emergencies, instead of his own vehicle. It would also get day-to-day use in the department, for fire prevention activities and transportation of equipment, and would serve as a command post at major incidents.

A pick-up had been included in the capital forecast in 2009 and $33,000 was designated for it in the current budget. Council decided last week to spend up to $36,000, which will include a cap for the bed, a slide-out tray for easy access to equipment and an emergency light package.

After two rounds of quotations for fleet pricing, the choice was narrowed down to a Dodge at $28,108 or a Ford F150 at $29,841. Councillors agreed with the chief's preference for the Ford, based on better gas mileage.

Councillor Deb Callaghan declared a conflict of interest, since the Fire Chief is her husband, and left the council table during the discussion and vote.

September 19, 2012

Quiet Reading Area takes shape at library

As published in The Erin Advocate

Patrons of the Erin Library can now enjoy a quieter area to sit and read, as noise-reduction renovations are almost complete.

The new Quite Reading Area is not a separate room, since the only new wall is just 10 feet long (9.5 feet tall), located next to the doorway. There is a wide-open passageway, then a row of shelving 20 feet long (6 feet tall) towards the windows, to create a barrier for the area.

The new zone has a carpeted floor, while the main area of computers and work tables has ceramic tile. Sound-dampening panels on the wall behind the check-out desk reduce the reflection of sound into the area.

Three new padded chairs, with swing-in writing surfaces on the arms, have been added, along with small tables and additional chairs with wooden arms. Two computer stations are included in the area.

The doors to the library have been upgraded, and an enclosure has been built around the drop-off box.

The County of Wellington allocated $100,000 to this project in its 2012 capital budget.

September 12, 2012

Hillsburgh dam reinforced

As published in The Erin Advocate

Steel beams are lowered into the pond next to the Station Street dam in Hillsburgh, and pounded into the sediment with a pile driver attached to a backhoe bucket. They will help stabilize the roadway where a new culvert is being installed.

September 05, 2012

Worldwide events promote suicide prevention

As published in The Erin Advocate

Having a special "day" may not seem like much, in the struggle to keep people from taking their own lives. But when it is an issue that we are afraid to talk about, public discussion is a valuable key that can open up channels of hope and support.

World Suicide Prevention Day will be marked with a brief event in Erin on Monday, September 10, at McMillan Park on Main Street, at 12:30 p.m. It is partly to mourn the many lives lost to suicide, but more importantly to encourage those who are still at risk, and to reduce the stigma that makes it difficult to talk about mental illness and seek help.

I have been asked to share some personal reflections at this event, since Jean and I had ten years of experience in suicide prevention, before losing our son Thomas last May.

"Until it touches somebody's life, they don't realize how common it is," said Kim Bell, Program Lead/Mental Health Worker at the East Wellington Family Health Team, who is helping organize the event.

It is also sponsored by the Suicide Awareness Council (formerly the Suicide Resource Group) of Wellington-Dufferin, which has been in existence since 1999. Its goal is to reduce the incidence of suicide and its impact, through access to credible information, education and resources.

There is valuable information at and at It is also worthwhile to learn about the Collateral Damage Project, at, which promotes training in how to deal with the risk of suicide.

Preventing suicide requires a core partnership that includes the person in distress, the immediate family and health professionals – family doctor, psychiatrist and counsellor.

"It's about asking tough questions, hearing tough answers and taking action," said Bell. She said suicide is rarely an impulsive act, as people normally seek out many other options to alleviate their pain.

"You have to be honest with each other. Asking about suicide does not make it more likely. It gives the person permission to talk about it."

The suicides of almost 4,000 people per year in Canada create a painful reminder that this is a major public health issue, one that affects all walks of life.

“It speaks loudly about the need for the Government of Canada to pay heed to the call from thousands of Canadians, the United Nations and the World Health Organization to establish a national suicide prevention strategy,” said Tim Wall, Executive Director for the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

Bill C-300, to create Federal Framework for Suicide Prevention is now before the Senate. It would recognize suicide as a public health issue, provide guidelines, and promote collaboration, knowledge exchange and best practices.

When it was passed in the House of Commons in June, the Bill’s sponsor, Kitchener-Conestoga MP Harold Albrecht thanked all MPs for the quality of discussion through all the debates, which remained free of partisanship.

He challenged MPs to keep the conversations on suicide and its prevention alive in their own communities, as Canada remains a long way from breaking the stigma surrounding this issue.

Electrofishing helps monitor river health

As published in The Erin Advocate

Stunning fish with electricity might seem a bit unfair, compared to traditional fishing. But electrofishing is not about sport, or catching your dinner – it is about science, and preserving the health of rivers.

Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) runs volunteer Electrofishing Days throughout the summer, at locations such as Shaw's Creek in Alton, the West Credit in Belfountain, the main river in Terra Cotta, and Silver Creek, just upstream of where it joins the Credit in Norval.

It is a chance for the public to help CVC staff collect fish (mainly small ones), which are identified by species and measured for length.

After a short stay in an aerated bucket of water, the fish are released unharmed into the water – though they might have wondered why their environment was invaded by a squad of humans with hip waders, arm-length gloves and nets, who appeared to be having fun.

The volunteers are led by a CVC technician with a battery-powered generator backpack, which has a rat-tail wire dangling behind into the water, and a long rod with a metal hoop at the front. As the hoop is moved along the rocks and gravel of the river bed, it emits an electrical charge that immobilizes fish that are close by.

A pair of netters stand ready to aggressively scoop the fish out of the quickly moving water, and any that they miss are likely to be caught by several rows of back-up fishers, who keep their nets pressed to the stream bed.

CVC staff carry out a broader fish monitoring program at about 100 points in the watershed, some of which have been established for many years. They are interested in knowing just how much aquatic life different segments of the river can support.

Fisheries Technician Phil Bird said it important to monitor the fish populations consistently over time to determine their sensitivity to temperature changes and pollution.

Having a crew of volunteers allows them to a sample a wide section of river, moving back and forth from bank to bank and working their way upstream. Volunteers also help by shuttling buckets, and learn how to identify various fish.

The Credit watershed is home to rainbow trout, brook trout and brown trout; and various salmon travel up from the lake to spawn. There are lesser-known species such as rainbow darters, similar to minnow or perch, a forage food for the bigger fish. The electrofishing volunteers also end up with many crayfish in their nets.

The Credit River Anglers Association (CRAA) is hoping to develop a wild, self-sustaining Atlantic salmon run in the next 20 years. Atlantic salmon were once abundant in the river, but were extinct from Lake Ontario by 1896. They are making a comeback, with restocking by the Ministry of Natural Resources and the CRAA.

A chinook salmon run has been established with a combination of wild and hatchery fish, and increase stocking has also promoted the return of the coho salmon.

The population of wild steelhead, a popular fighting fish for anglers, has also been growing thanks to CRAA volunteers, who have transported adult fish to the spawning grounds north of the Norval dam.

Electrofishing is one of the activities for teens in the CVC's Conservation Youth Corp, a summer program of environmental stewardship and hands-on education. They earn volunteer hours for their high school requirements, make a difference with tree planting, removal of invasive species, construction of boardwalks and fish habitat structures, and rehabilitating stream banks.

The best way to keep track of volunteer and educational events run by CVC is to check their calendar at, or subscribe to their on-line newsletter The Source – visit the Media & Publications section of the website to sign up.