When Mark Henick, principal and chief executive officer at Strategic Mental Health Solutions, was younger, he felt he had no choice but to take his own life.
In the small Cape Breton community where he grew up, few support systems were available for a young person suffering from what turned out to be severe and persistent depression with a co-anxiety disorder. “I have no choice, that’s what I thought. I was just a kid, just a teenager, standing on the edge of a bridge ready to kill myself,” he said at Benefits Canada‘s 2019 Mental Health Summit on Nov. 29 in Toronto.
“Nobody knew what to do with me. I had talked to all the psychiatrists, all the psychologists, the occupational therapists and counsellors, nurses, guidance counsellors, teachers and parents.”
Over the last several years, Henick has been involved in some significant mental-health advancements in Canada, including helping to introduce the national standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace while he was on the board of directors of the Mental Health Commission of Canada. The standard was the first of its kind globally, he said, and is now being modelled in other countries.
“The work that you do every day — even if on your worst day you feel like it isn’t significant, you feel like you’re not making a difference — [know that it is],” said Henick. “By providing people options in their care, one of them will eventually sink through, one of them will eventually connect.
“And that’s why it’s so key to be able to walk with people on these complex journeys, because you may never know, in these small little things you’re doing for people, these small little gifts you’re giving people, the impact it has. But I hope someday you find out how much you’ve impacted people and, indeed, how much you’ve probably saved their lives.”
Growing up, there were signs for Henick’s symptoms, he said, but he wasn’t diagnosed until he was 12, after his first suicide attempt. “I’d been struggling for at least two years by that point, but nobody noticed. So when I first expressed those suicidal urges — and it was in school, where I spent more of my hours than just about anywhere else, just like people in workplaces spend more hours at work than they do with their families — it was natural that my school would be the first place to see it.”
Boys are taught not to cry, said Henick, so he didn’t have the skills to deal with the mental-health struggles he was facing. When he was first admitted to the hospital after that initial suicide attempt, he recalls his mother saying, “We didn’t see this coming.”
“But so often it’s the strong ones, the good ones, who struggle the most, because we’re told every day we can’t show weakness, and men especially, to be a man, to suck it up. I was sent home from that first visit to the hospital without being admitted. And I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this in your life, but nothing changes if nothing changes. I was sent back to the exact same environment. I wasn’t prescribed any medications. I wasn’t really given any followup of any kind. We didn’t have many resources that were available to us in a small town. We had the one psychiatric unit in the hospital.”
Unless a person builds a valve within themselves where pressure can escape, it will increase again. And when someone is on the edge, like Henick was, the triggers can be trivial. “The tighter things get inside you, inside your mind, inside your brain, inside your psychology, it doesn’t take much to prick that balloon to push you over the edge,” he said. “That’s why sometimes, especially if you’re in the office or working on something, you don’t even know what set that person off.
“There’s this false idea that we separate our work and our life, and that somehow, miraculously, we need to balance those two separate forces as though they never mingle. Now we know that’s not the case. We bring our whole self to work every day, whether we think we do or not, and we bring our work home, if not in our briefcase, then certainly in our head.”
How can people better marry those two things in a healthy and integrated way so that pressure doesn’t build up inside us? Henick asked the audience. “One thing I’ve learned repeatedly in my life is that if you don’t stop, if you don’t take a break, your body will break eventually. That’s the way it works. That’s how we maintain homeostasis. And if you don’t do it yourself, your body will do it for you. That’s how you stay alive.”