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Suicide Spurs Community Action

In mid-November 2017, prominent Calgary investment banker George Gosbee died by suicide, leaving behind his wife and three children. He was 48 years old.

From the outside, the Gosbees seemed to have it all—health, happiness, and affluence. But George had been battling with addiction and mental health issues for much of his adult life, and his commitment to seeking help fluctuated over the years. The stigma surrounding mental health, and the fear of being perceived as weak or incapable, drove him to work harder, even as his troubles grew.

But for George’s wife Karen, seeking mental health support for herself and their three children became critical.

“I wasn’t happy with the situation. I realized that as long as I was going to continue doing what I did, the pattern was going to manifest itself in my kids. George was either going to get better or not. But then, it wasn’t about George, it was about my own journey, and that took me forever to figure out. I saw therapist after therapist, and even went back to school to get an academic understanding of what addiction was and what I was dealing with,” she says.

Navigating the healthcare system to get her family the support they needed proved to be more challenging than Karen had anticipated.

Laureen MacNeil, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) – Calgary branch, has witnessed this many times. She says navigating the healthcare system and accessing the right supports is often an uphill battle, which is why many people try to find help online or by reaching out to their friends and family for help. But, the different opinions can often be overwhelming and not very helpful in the long run, which is why many people don’t get the help they need until it’s too late.

“We are catching too many people at the crises stage, and it is very costly. People end up in the emergency room, and once they’re discharged, they are left to their own devices. They don’t know where to go,” says Laureen.

The gaps in the system make it difficult for people to seek help, especially those who are vulnerable or do not have the resources to pay for additional support.

“If it’s hard for people like myself who have the financial means to access the best services out there, I can’t imagine how hard it is for others, especially youth, newcomers, or people living in poverty,” says Karen.

Yared Belayneh, the mental health strategy lead at United Way of Calgary and Area, cautions that mental health issues can happen to anyone—they are not the problem of the poor man, the homeless addict, or the chronically vulnerable. George’s story, he points out, is a prime example of that—a story that’s all too common, particularly among business executives who can find it harder than others to access supports because of perceived stigma, and questions over their fitness for their substantial roles. According to Yared, in order to support people like George and his family, our community needs to focus on reducing the stigma by encouraging people to ask for help, and building sustainable support, not one-time, episodic counselling support.

“Hospital-based services cost substantially more than community-based services, even though recovery happens in the community. So, how do we help people come forward and seek help before they reach that acute stage where recovery is costly to both the individual and the system?” he asks.

For Karen, help came in the form of a support group for families and friends of alcoholics called Al-Anon.

“It wasn’t until I went to Al-Anon, and spoke to people with similar lived experiences, that I realized I need to do this for myself and my kids. It wasn’t until I found myself in that common community, hearing those common stories, that I started to break away,” she adds.

After George’s death, Karen became a steadfast mental health advocate in Calgary. In July 2018, The City of Calgary announced it would be convening a community-wide mental health and addiction strategy, allocating $15 million towards existing social service agencies and $10 million on the development and implementation of new initiatives. As part of her advocacy work, Karen volunteered to sit on the city-wide taskforce responsible for developing and implementing the new strategy. She hopes to use her lived experience and her family’s struggle with navigating Calgary’s healthcare system to inspire change on a systems level.

“There’s no one solution. We have to stop focusing on that single solution and start saying we have to learn more about it,” says Karen. “So, how do we use our collective resources to create an evidence-based, marked improvement in how to access resources that will have a far reach?”

CMHA’s Laureen believes the partnerships and the vision of The City and funders will allow them to build pathways that will ultimately lead to long-term change.

“We are intellectually rich in this city, passionate, and we know we can handle ups and downs, sometimes it’s just about revealing what we have, and sharing it with others. If we are aware of the gaps in the system, our sector could rally around and within existing resources to connect and serve clients better. It can’t just be one organization looking at this. We need to get all the collaboratives working together. It’s complicated but doable work,” she says.

Karen says it is incumbent on the community to ensure those who need support can access it without having to jump over hurdles.

“For anyone with mental health issues…it should be clear as day how to map through the system. And that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing—I want to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and use my lived experience to help others.”

Thanks to Karen Gosbee for sharing her story! As a leader in the social sector, United Way invests in various services that support individuals with mental health issues to navigate and access effective community-based services, champion communities to reduce stigma and promote social inclusion, and help build a strong network of coordinated service providers. 

We are excited to work with community leaders like Karen to advocate for policy and systems change that move the needle on complex social issues like mental health.