This is part one of a special series on Mental Health in Greater Victoria. Find the entire series online at vicnews.com/tag/mental-health-in-greater-victoria. You can also find Black Press Media’s Mental Health Resource Guide online at vicnews.com/e-editions.
Paula Roumeliotis struggled for 25 years before she was properly diagnosed with a mental illness. It would be another 10 years until she found a proper recovery service – a result, she says, of stigma surrounding mental health.
Problems arose for her in 1981, just as Roumeliotis was finishing up her training as a registered nurse. She managed to work for three years before she found she wasn’t well enough to work anymore. She worked part-time until 1986 and then went on disability.
She spoke with psychologists, physicians, had multiple hospitalizations and tried different medications. During this time, she faced stigma on a medical level.
“There was not a lot of talk about having hope, or of being a person living a productive or meaningful life,” Roumeliotis said. “For me personally, I was told that I would never be able to have a job unless it was part-time and very simple.”
In her daily life, she heard people make fun of those with mental illness and speak about them in a derogatory manner.
“I began to internalize all that talk and began to believe all those things about myself; that I was a failure and that there were things that were intrinsically wrong with me,” she said. “It was very isolating … I certainly wasn’t going to talk about the fact that I had a mental illness.”
Accessing medical attention was – and continues to be – a struggle, with a shortage of general practitioners, a limitation of their mental health knowledge, and the limited accessibility to psychologists unless they are paid out of pocket.
It wasn’t until 2005 that she received a proper diagnosis: Roumeliotis had bipolar disorder. Getting appropriate medication and therapy helped her to feel healthier and more functional, but she still felt alone.
“There wasn’t a focus on recovery,” she said. “It’s not a matter of no longer having the illness or not needing to take medication … It’s about the fact that it’s possible for me to live with a mental illness and that I’m a person with lived experience who can live a life that’s meaningful.”
It wasn’t until 2014 that a caseworker recommended that Roumeliotis visit the BC Schizophrenia Society (BCSS) to participate in its Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) program. The evidence-based program helps people develop a plan for themselves, everything from what it’s like when they’re well to developing a crisis plan for when they are not. The society also offered a relapse prevention plan and peer-led support groups from people with varying diagnosed and undiagnosed mental illnesses. For the first time in 35 years, she saw a place with a recovery-oriented focus.
Soon, after regularly attending, Roumeliotis noticed a difference.
“My whole attitude around the way I looked at myself with a lot of stigma started to fall off,” she said. “I started talking to other people about living with mental health issues and getting that support that I was lacking. I started having confidence and more self-esteem and learning that there’s a lot more to recovery around mental illness than just seeing a psychiatrist and taking medication.”
Within a few years, Roumeliotis received peer support and WRAP facilitator training and began working at a newly-created partnering branch with the BCSS, the Mental Health Recovery Program, South Island (MHRP).
“People who did not have schizophrenia did not know they could come to BC Schizophrenia Society Victoria due to the name. We have welcomed people with schizophrenia, bipolar, and major depression and people with psychosis for years. A change in name would better reflect who we serve,” explained Hazel Meredith, executive director at the MHRP. “Our services are welcoming and focused on recovery. Our new name represents the partnerships we can mobilize to enhance recovery and healthier lives for all of our community members.”
Now, Roumeliotis facilitates workshops, group meetings and speaks at universities and schools about mental health and breaking the stigma. “It’s very empowering, and it’s helped me in my own recovery tremendously,” Roumeliotis said. “It gives me the kind of feeling that the years of struggle are not wasted if they can be used to support others.”
She also wants people to know what she would tell her past self.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out for help – don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed. Mental health is something that doesn’t have to be limiting, it’s not a death sentence and there’s a lot of hope … Hope is the key.”