In November, Tara Gretton and I had the pleasure of interviewing Carolyn Albanese on our podcast – A Call Across the Pond; Transforming Relationships at School, at Home and Beyond. Carolyn is an experienced educator, guidance counsellor and school administrator. She is a passionate mental health and wellbeing advocate, supporting individuals who have experienced mental health trauma and/or abuse. As an Education Officer for the Ministry of Education of Ontario, Carolyn is a provincial leader in her branch in equity, inclusion, wellbeing and human rights for all. In this interview, she openly shares her personal story to highlight the impact of mental health stigma in families. She elevates the need for honesty and communication around trauma, grief and despair. Carolyn shares her journey of discovery, compassion, and mental health advocacy. ‘We all have mental health’, she says, ‘and we need to talk about it’.
A second generation Italian Canadian, Carolyn’s grandparents were originally from a small community in Calabria. After WWII, when poverty became too much to bear, they immigrated to Toronto, Canada for a better life. Carolyn lovingly shares some of the stories she learned about her grandparents. For example, her grandfather drove an upholstery truck, which carried furniture that was fashionably and ‘eternally’ wrapped in plastic (to preserve the value of what once might have been unavailable to a poor family). As fate would have it, he lost his eyesight in an accident while conducting deliveries, placing the family in a new situation of dealing with disability in the face of low socio-economics. As a result, Carolyn’s grandmother, who had worked to support her own extended family as a nanny in Italy, and who became a homemaker in Toronto as she raised Carolyn’s mother and younger son, now demonstrated continued resilience returning to work at an undergarments shop. Together as a family, they prioritized a frugal lifestyle as they bottled and preserved foods to support healthy eating on a low budget, and grounded themselves in Italian traditions and community.
Mental health challenges became more apparent when Carolyn’s uncle developed frequent physical and emotional outbursts. His intense assault of her friend left her in the hospital. Carolyn’s grandparents, as so many did at the time, responded to their son’s outbursts as isolated incidents. During extreme episodes, they would call the police. Her uncle cycled in and out of jail as his parents bailed him out. Carolyn was observant, sensitive and family-oriented. She carefully navigated a climate where her uncle’s mental health was treated as an untouchable secret that could not be discussed.
As with many families, mental health stigma stems from societal judgment coupled with negative interpretations of mental health problems. It motivates a practice of silencing uncomfortable conversations that might bring about shame. ‘There was also an unwritten playbook for an immigrant who was expected to look good, to fit in and be included as a contributing member of society’, Carolyn reflects. Her family’s unwavering sense of pride kept them from openly sharing their hardship, even with each other, in an effort to honor this playbook. Carolyn refers to this as ‘figura’ or ‘putting on the airs’ to avoid vulnerability and rejection. Yet she reminds us that in addition to the immigrant experience, many families living with different forms of trauma, also cloak themselves in pride and silence. ‘Whether we want to admit it or not’, explains Carolyn, ‘we are deeply impacted by a family member who is struggling with mental health’. “Mental illness and its’ impact on family doesn’t go away just because we want it to. Stifling our thoughts and feelings can result in isolation, aggression or passive aggression, silence, minimizing, ignoring, yelling, and additional mental health challenges’.
Carolyn tried to open pathways to healing in her family, but recognized that without their support, she couldn’t make a difference. As they continued to ignore the problem, things only worsened. Carolyn remembers her uncle disappearing for long periods, and wonders if he would have been closer to his family, had he felt compassion, and received better support. Later when Carolyn’s own mother suffered from depression from physical ailments for which there was no remedy, and when her father turned to alcoholism and abuse of prescription medication, the cycle of silence continued.
In our interview, Carolyn asks listeners to contemplate some difficult questions, and she responds to them all with clarity:
- Why are our physical ailments immediately attended to, but our mental health problems ignored?
- Why do individuals have to experience oppression and live in pain, when we can help them with their mental health?
- How do we support our family and friends who are struggling with their own mental health or that of a loved one?
- How do we support our own mental health?
- How do we enter into challenging conversations as we help our friends and family?
- How can we become better advocates and communicators?
- How do we critically examine our thinking around mental health?
- How do we gently raise awareness about mental health for the next generation?
Carolyn inspires us with her knowledge, wisdom and honesty. She empowers us to have a voice. She provides the listener with an opportunity to see that not all wounds are obvious and that when individuals experience mental health challenges, those around them do so as well. ‘There are many who walk among us, whether family or friends, who are quietly dealing with their own suffering. They don’t feel they can share their experience because people will judge, exclude or silence them’. Carolyn bravely addresses the nature of our role in helping ourselves and others. She provides direction and practical strategies that support wellness while opening lines of communication.
Check out Carolyn’s amazing talk on the PODCAST.
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