How an Edmonton nurse copes with depression by quilting for mentally ill patients

Blankets of Love is a group of volunteers across the country who have made more than 2,500 quilts for patients in psychiatric wards in Canada.

More than 2,500 of the Blankets of Love quilts have been given to psychiatric patients in Canada since 1996

Sheila Ethier uses quilting to improve her mental health and help others who are in the hospital. (Emily Rendell-Watson/CBC)

Sometimes Sheila Ethier cries when she quilts.

Ethier has battled major depression for more than 20 years, and uses quilting as an emotional outlet.

"When I'm sewing, I find it takes me out of my sadness," Ethier told CBC's Radio Active. "It makes me feel like I'm busy and contributing."

Hear more about an Edmonton women that's sewing quilts for mental health patients. 5:34

Ethier hasn't been able to work full-time as a nurse since her first major breakdown in 1994.

She would later find herself in the hospital three to four times a year. She would return home from the hospital, and she'd feel cold, she said. "I was barely functioning."

One day in 1996, while searching for blankets, Ethier found an old keepsake that would inspire her for the next two decades: an old quilt.

The blanket, with its bright yellow and orange patchwork, was given to Ethier by her grandmother when she was little. It was in storage, collecting dust and not keeping anyone warm. She wrapped herself in it.

"As I covered myself with the blanket, I just immediately felt this sense of warmth and comfort and love," she said. "It gave me a glimpse of the past and when I was well, and I thought, 'Maybe there's hope that I'd come out of this darkness.'

"I just closed my eyes and said, 'It's a blanket of love.' "

That was the start of the Blankets of Love Foundation for Mental Health, which is made up of volunteers across the country who have made more than 2,500 quilts for patients in psychiatric wards.

Purpose and meaning

Ethier sews a quilt that will go to a mentally ill patient in time for the holidays. (Emily Rendell-Watson/CBC)

Hospitals in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia have participated in the program, which aims to give the gift of warmth in more ways than one.

"The biggest thing that I wanted to let people know who are facing challenges with mental illness is that we accept you and we support you and maybe that will inspire them to learn how to live with it," Ethier said.

She is now finishing up a quilt in time for Christmas, which is often one of the hardest times for patients in the hospital. But making the quilt isn't just for the recipient, she said.

The Blankets of Love patch includes space to be addressed to each individual person receiving the blanket. (Emily Rendell-Watson/CBC)

"Making a quilt and piecing it together and knowing all the quilters across Canada … have the same desire as me to help comfort and make people feel better about whatever challenges they're facing, it makes me feel good," Ethier said.

Though she continues her struggle with depression, quilting makes her feel like she's helping those who battle mental illness feel loved, she said.

Some of the finished products. Blankets of Love has given more than 2,500 quilts to mentally ill patients. (Emily Rendell-Watson/CBC)

"I have a hard time leaving the house. I cry. Facing those challenges, I've had to teach myself to look for joy, look for good things, look for things that make me happy," Ethier said.

"[Quilting] brings purpose and meaning into my life."

Listen to Radio Active with host Portia Clark, weekday afternoons on CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM/740 AM in Edmonton. Follow the show on Twitter: @CBCRadioActive.

With files from Emily Rendell-Watson