Lighting the Shadows

(excerpted from Homemakers Magazine, Feb/Mar 2007 – Full article 1600 words)
copyright Deborah Carr


On a snow-capped mountaintop in the Rockies, four sisters stood together, yet each alone with her thoughts.  One reached out.  A cloud of grey ash appeared like breath, then fell heavily, as if burdened with the life represented.  Each took a turn.  A moment later, the women embraced.  Silently, they turned away.

One of them knew it was not an end, but a beginning.


“We were letting him go, knowing he was in peace and in a place he loved,” recalls Helen MacDonnell.  She had flown west from her home in Riverview, N.B. to attend her brother’s memorial service following his death on January 28, 2003.

“It’s still very raw…even now.”

Duncan had bipolar disorder, a biological mental illness characterized by unusually severe mood and energy swings that range from euphoric highs to depressive lows.  A collection of suicide notes, written and sealed in envelopes fifteen years previous, explained his lonely struggle with mental illness.  Journals, also found in his apartment, spoke of other suicide attempts, his search for answers, his feelings of failure.

In the weeks following his death, Helen poured over his journals, seeking to understand her brother’s choice.  “That’s when it crystallized for me.  He didn’t want to die, he just wanted to end the pain and hurt.  I tried to encourage him, talk to him and be there for him, but the realization how ignorant we were about his illness just blows me away.”

As she began to research mental illness, it soon became clear that lack of knowledge and the pressure of social stigma are major barriers to diagnosis and support of those with mental disorders.

“When I realized how common and widespread mental illness is, and that we don’t talk about it, I thought it’s not good enough,” states Helen.  “I have the ability to use my words and be an advocate, so maybe this is what I was trained for.”

With an education in journalism and law, and having left her dream job as a public relations director to be a full time mom, Helen knew she had the skills and time to devote to a campaign to bring mental illness into the spotlight

She even knew what form it might take.

It was a January night in 2001, in the aftermath of a snowstorm, that Helen had stood, shovel in hand, trapped in her driveway.  Ahead, a dune-sized snowdrift; behind, a husband and two children, all sick with the flu.  The stress of Christmas not yet dissipated, she felt discouraged, exhausted, alone.  The next day, she invited 20 women for an evening of self-indulgence and quality adult conversation.  It became a ritual among friends.  A spirit-lifter in the dark days of January.

Inspired by the success of this women’s night, and with the backing of the Canadian Mental Health Association in Moncton, she began plans for Wine, Women, and Wellness. Its slogan, “Lift a glass…raise a spirit”, made it a party with a purpose.  She called her 20 friends and asked them to each invite a friend.

Helen explains the concept.  “Wine in moderation is a healthy thing and as women, we need to care for mind-body-spirit to achieve wellness. Positive energy happens when women get together.”

The evening incorporates pampering elements such as music, refreshments, food, chocolates, and gifts, creating an atmosphere of sisterhood that encourages one-on-one sharing and support.  Guest speakers are invited to talk on mental health topics that educate, touch the heart, and offer humour, thus addressing the underlying purpose of spreading knowledge and awareness.  Attendance is free, but donations are gratefully accepted.

The event was launched on the first anniversary of Duncan’s death and 54 women attended, donating $1,200.  The second year as word spread, attendance and donations doubled.  But in 2006, with 150 guests and a number of corporate sponsors, the final tally was over $13,000.

These donations would enable CMHA Moncton to supplement and extend its community service programs, but while fundraising is important, it is secondary, notes Helen.  “It’s meant to be education and awareness.  To touch your heart, then pick you up and make you laugh so you come away saying, I learned something, but I also enjoyed myself.”

Her efforts have already touched many lives.

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