JANE PAULEY SEEMED THE EPITOME OF A MODERN WOMAN WHO HAD IT ALL. Happily married to Garry Trudeau, the renowned creator of the Doonesbury comic strip, Pauley was mother to three healthy and vibrant children. She also had a brilliant career: catapulted into co-hosting NBC’s Today show in 1976, at the age of 25, Pauley’s smiling image was beamed into North American households every weekday morning for the next 13 years. She followed that with a lengthy stint co-anchoring the network’s popular primetime newsmagazine program, Dateline NBC.
In an industry brimming with divas and self-promoters, Pauley displayed a level-headedness that once prompted the president of NBC News to declare, “Jane Pauley has the best mental health in the business.” As Pauley recalls, “The common perception was that I had my priorities in order and my head screwed on straight. I was not the smartest, toughest, hardest working nor most beautiful woman in network television. But I owned normal.”
It was an image that Pauley herself endorsed—and embraced. Raised in a middle-class household in Indianapolis, Pauley’s family could have easily stepped out of a Norman Rockwell illustration. Dad was a traveling milk salesman and church elder. Mom sewed the kid’s clothes and kept the home fires burning. “The only thing extraordinary about my childhood,” said Pauley, “was the singular ordinariness of it all.”
But as she grew older, trouble signs emerged. During Pauley’s second year on the Today show, she discovered that her father had been a secret drinker most of his adult
life—so much so that his liver was in imminent danger of shutting down. In 1989, in the midst of tensions on the Today set, Pauley slipped into what she later recognized as a depression, though it went undiagnosed at the time. Then there was her recurring struggle with hives, which mysteriously flared up every seven years, usually when she was, for one reason or another, feeling stressed.
By the spring of 2000, Pauley’s latest, and worst, case of hives took a dangerous turn. Swelling in her throat blocked her ability to breathe, resulting in repeated visits to the emergency room. Pauley’s doctors treated her with steroids, which cured the hives—and triggered something else entirely.
Pauley started to experience mood swings, including manic spells when she would go on wild shopping sprees and talk, improbably, about launching her own line of clothing. Diagnosed with a rare case of drug-induced bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression), Pauley spent three weeks in a psychiatric hospital in New York City in May, 2001.
Placed under 24-hour supervision, Pauley was startled to be told to keep her hands above the bed sheets at all times. “That’s when I finally faced the reality of the words ‘mental illness,”’ she recalls. “Until then, mental illness had been an abstraction to me. Now, I felt like an abstraction. To be mentally ill, is to not recognize yourself and to stand in front of your family and to realize they don’t know who you are.”
With the help of medication, Pauley got better and returned to Dateline NBC that fall (she left the show two years later). In 2004, she disclosed her condition to the world in her memoir, Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue. Since then, Pauley, 56, has emerged as an outspoken mental health advocate, which is how she came to relate her remarkable story in an opening address to the Alberta Mental Health Board’s second annual Mental Health Research Showcase, held in Banff Oct. 30 to Nov. 1, 2006.
In many ways, Pauley’s speech set the tone for the conference, which drew together 400 mental health and addictions researchers, clinicians and policymakers from across Canada, the United States and as far afield as Australia. Pauley invoked what became a common theme over the next few days, namely that attitudes toward the mentally ill are approaching “a tipping point”—moving away from centuries-old stigma and shunning in favor of accepting mental illness as a prevalent, and treatable, medical condition.
“I grieve for my lost mental health,” Pauley told delegates. “I worry about what’s to come and about my family. But I’ve never felt guilt or shame. And if I can do anything to nudge us a little closer to this tipping point of acceptance, why wouldn’t I speak out?”
The Alberta Mental Health Board (AMHB) is
the provincial health authority that oversees and advances Alberta’s mental health system. The AMHB is involved in numerous initiatives, including advocacy, policy advice and working with regional health authorities and stakeholders to improve and facilitate mental health research and services. The AMHB also collaborates with inter-provincial, national and international partners. Hosting the Showcase conferences—which are designed to shine a spotlight on the very best mental health research worldwide—is an integral part of the AMHB’s ever-evolving mandate.
“To improve mental health care, we need to be able to translate research findings into change at both policy and practice levels,” says Laurie Beverley, Vice-President, Programs and Research, for the AMHB. “By gathering together experts from so many different fields, the Mental Health Research Showcase is a key mechanism for doing just that.”
Three years ago, the AMHB led the development of a provincial mental health plan setting out a vision for making Alberta a world-class leader in mental health research. A partnership committee was charged with realizing that vision. In 2006, the committee set out an agenda for the next three years centered on four key themes: the effectiveness of mental health services, child and adolescent mental health, mental health in the workplace, and mental health and addictions. These themes were all reflected in the topics and speakers featured at the 2006 Showcase conference.
The AMHB is active on several other fronts. Over the past two years, the board has developed strategies to deal with suicide prevention as well as children’s and aboriginal mental health. The AMHB created a mental
health magazine, Grip, and web site (www.griponlife.ca), written by and for teens, and introduced Mental Health First Aid Canada, a program that gives health care providers, teachers and others the skills to recognize and deal with people who exhibit symptoms of mental illness. The board is also in charge of monitoring a three-year, $75 million Innovation Fund from the Alberta Health and Wellness ministry to ensure that innovative ideas for improving the mental health system are making a difference to Albertans.
Yet another step forward is the Alberta Centennial Mental Health Research Chair program. Over the next three to five years, the AMHB and its partners plan to attract leading mental health experts to fill research chair positions located at Alberta universities. The objective: to provide strong, credible research that will result in effective mental health treatment and prevention programs.
The vision being pursued by the AMHB extends far beyond Alberta’s boundaries. In particular, BC Mental Health and Addictions Services is a key partner and a co-sponsor of the Showcase conferences. “We are very pleased to be part of this event,” says Patrick Smith, Senior Advisor for the British Columbia agency. “We see the Showcase conferences as an example of how our two provinces can work together to advance mental health.”
Similarly, the AMHB provided information and advice to the Parliamentary committee, led by Senator Michael Kirby, that issued last spring’s landmark report, Out of the Shadows: Transforming Mental Health, Mental Illness and Addictions Services in Canada. One of the report’s chief recommendations is the creation of a Canadian Mental Health Commission—an
arm’s length agency, funded by the federal government, to coordinate mental health reform across the country.
The AMHB intends to play a significant role in reforming Canada’s mental health care system—with the information gleaned from the Showcase conferences helping pave the way. As they had at the inaugural event in 2005, delegates resisted the lure of the snow-peaked Rockies in favor of marathon conference sessions. For three days, they listened attentively to expert presenters and peppered them with probing questions. They pored over more than 100 academic abstracts on everything from cyber-bullying to the impact of native sweat lodge ceremonies on mental well-being. They exchanged ideas and came away more determined than ever to harness the best in research to improve the lives of the millions of people who struggle daily with mental illness. What follows are some highlights of what conference participants learned.
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