UnderstandUs founder curbing mental health stigma by sharing anxiety story

Jim Demeray, founder of Regina-based mental health initiative UnderstandUs, speaks at Carlton Comprehensive Public High School for Youth Safety Education Day on Sept. 13, 2019. (Jayda Noyes/Daily Herald)

Service Hospitality focusing on importance of mental health in the workplace for Youth Safety Education Day

The founder of a Saskatchewan mental health awareness initiative made a stop in Prince Albert on Friday for Youth Safety Education Day.

Jim Demeray, president of UnderstandUs, spoke to Carlton Comprehensive Public High School students as the keynote speaker for Service Hospitality.

This year, the City of Prince Albert proclaimed Sept. 10 as Youth Safety Education Day.

The presentation on Friday focused on the importance of mental health in the workplace.

Demeray began his speech by telling his own mental health story, which starts when he was a child.

“I always had this sense of worry and this sense of panic and this sense of discomfort that existed in everything that I did, but when I was a kid, I didn’t know that that was any different from anybody else,” he said.

When adulthood hit, Demeray could feel the stress rapidly rising.

“I had a breakdown, so I wasn’t eating, I couldn’t sleep, I was vomiting every morning just from the stress, (also) overnight. I couldn’t even carry on a conversation.”

He told his sister, a psych nurse, he suspected something was wrong.

They went to the doctor and Demeray was diagnosed with generalized anxiety—where a person experiences excessive worry over every day events, which may include health, money, work, school or family.

“In that moment, I remember having a lot of fear and a lot of shame with that diagnosis because from what I knew, if you’re diagnosed with a mental illness, you are crazy and you start losing the ability to function as a normal human being,” he explained.

But then Demeray began to “stabilize himself” by taking an antidepressant medication and seeing a counsellor.

At this point, Demeray had not yet began UnderstandUs—that came in 2011 after his father died from a heart attack. He realized his dad suffered from depression, but never admitted it.

“In his generation, a man talking about his feelings or being vulnerable or showing any weakness was more upsetting to him than living with a disease and not getting help,” explained Demeray, so he started the initiative in honour of his dad to help break the stigma surrounding mental illnesses.

He explained what having a mental illness is like with different sized glasses and water. He said biologically, he wakes up every morning with water already in the glass and when stress builds up too much, it overflows. To prevent this from happening, you have to find ways to drain water out of your glass or find a larger one.

This can be done by finding a career that best suits you.

“Making sure you’re working for a place with a culture of respect and managing that and doing whatever you can to help promote that in your workplace is going to lead to less stress and ensuring you know when you hit a point when your water glass is a little full,” said Demeray.

He said he’s noticed a lot more open conversations about mental health since he started UnderstandUs.

According to Service Hospitality, 50 per cent of people will experience a work injury within six months of entering the workforce.

Safety Advisor Laura Bence said they provide education resources for over 200 organizations. They focus on businesses like restaurants and hotels.

Service Hospitality says these industries make up 70 per cent of first time jobs in youth, who are most likely to get injured at work.

“We want to make sure that they’re really understanding how to stay safe at work before they’re even taking their first step into the workplace,” said Bence.

“(Youth are) our future; they’re the future workforce, they’re the future of Saskatchewan and we want them to go home every day healthy and safe.”

Deputy Mayor Don Cody, Provincial Secretary and Legislative Secretary to the Premier Todd Goudy and members of the Prince Albert Police Service attended the event.

Service Hospitality safety partners also had booths set up at Carlton for students during their lunch break.

Deputy Mayor Don Cody, Provincial Secretary and Legislative Secretary to the Premier Todd Goudy and members of the Prince Albert Police Service attended the Youth Safety Education Day presentation at Carlton Comprehensive Public High School on Sept. 13, 2019. (Jayda Noyes/Daily Herald)