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The Globe and Mail

Mother of bipolar son hopes event will reduce stigma

Mary Margaret Hanan believes her son John might still be alive if his bipolar disorder had been better understood. The Toronto journalist was 28 when he killed himself five years ago.

This weekend, Ms. Hanan is holding a walk-a-thon in his memory, an event she hopes will help tackle the stigma of mental illness and make it easier for people like her son to seek treatment when they need it.

John lived in Toronto with his girlfriend and worked as a reporter for an online news site aimed at the city's Italian community. He kept his illness a secret from most people in his life, worrying what they might think if they knew about his manic episodes. And he was never diagnosed.

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"The stigma for John was huge. He did not want his co-workers or friends to know how sick he was," Ms. Hanan said.

Recognizing that he needed help, John made plans to see a psychiatrist shortly before he died. But as the date approached, his mother said he began to fret over what he would say about the appointment to the people he worked with. "Instead of going [to the appointment] he took his life that afternoon," she said.

Sandy Milakovic, from the Canadian Mental Health Association's Peel branch, called Ms. Hanan's decision to share her story courageous. Only about a third of people who need help with a mental illness actually come forward and ask for it, she said.

"There's a huge disconnect between understanding the need for medical or social help for mental health problems, versus how people see getting help for physical problems," Ms. Milakovic said.

"It's about awareness, it's about feeling just as comfortable with saying 'I need help with my mental health,' or 'I'm not feeling well,' as it is saying, 'I've got the flu and I need to see my family doctor.'"

Ms. Hanan says she hopes telling the story now will inspire others to talk about mental health – and prompt anyone who's struggling alone to get whatever help they need.

"I can't bring John back. I would change places with him in a second if I could, but I can't," Ms. Hanan said. "So if this walk even saves one person from taking their life, John's death won't be in complete vain."

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The walk will take place on Saturday morning at Mississauga's Erindale Park and will raise money for education programs run by the Canadian Mental Health Association's branch in Peel.

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Parliamentary reporter

Kim Mackrael has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail since 2011. She joined the Ottawa bureau Sept. 2012. More

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