Nfld. & Labrador

New peer support group in St. Anthony bridging gap in mental health services

'I just like helping people,' says T.J. Smith, who started the peer support group in St. Anthony.

'I just like helping people,' says T.J. Smith, who launched the group on Sunday

T.J. Smith, who started the peer support group in St. Anthony, says it can be hard to speak out about mental health issues. (T.J. Smith/Facebook)

In a region that has few supports for people suffering with mental health issues, a man from St. Anthony has made it his mission to help.

T.J. Smith has started a peer support group for people on the Northern Peninsula who are struggling to get together and talk.

He's been dealing with depression and anxiety for years. In late 2015, he says he tried to take his own life, which he calls a "breaking point."

"I had some really tough times," Smith said.

"I guess that was a new turning point for my life and a start-over point."

Once we got in there and started talking, it's like the six or seven of us became a family. - T.J. Smith

The Newfoundland and Labrador government has committed to providing more consistent mental health services across the province by 2022.

Residents have spoken out about the lack of resources and services for people struggling, some of whom say they've had to leave the province for care.

Smith, who was living in Nova Scotia when he attempted suicide, was admitted to a psychiatric ward. For the first time, he started talking about his issues.

"Part of that was the stigma behind it. I was very scared to speak about it. As an athlete, as a hockey player, you're supposed to put on this macho, alpha male face," he said.

Smith started writing his experiences in a journal — everything from medications he was taking to how he was feeling that day. That progressed into a public blog and frank posts on Facebook about his struggles.

Hundreds of people from across the country liked and shared his posts, commented and messaged him — many asking for advice, he said. At first, the response caught him off guard.

"I don't know how I got here," said Smith. "I just like helping people."

Stigma in rural communities

Smith held the first peer support group meeting this past Sunday.

"It was awesome," he said. "Once we got in there and started talking, it's like the six or seven of us became a family. We started talking about our struggles. Connecting on that level was very, very uplifting for people."

Smith said there are no other mental health services in the region to help people. One of the issues the group will discuss is how to eliminate stigma around mental health in rural areas.

In a town like St. Anthony, which has a population of about 2,200, people often struggle to reach out and get mental health help. (Town of St. Anthony)

In a town like St. Anthony, which has a population of about 2,200, it can seem like everyone knows everyone and it can be hard to ask for help for fear of who will find out.

"But on the flipside of that, it's also a good thing being in a small community because there's a sense of community closeness here, connection. There's definitely social support for people."

'Strange' meeting place

Each week's meeting will have a theme. Last Sunday the topic was hope.

"I'm a very hopeful person now. Before I may have not had so much hope in my life for anything," Smith said. "Now I've got a tattoo on my arm and 'hope' is one of the words on there."

'I don’t know how I got here,' says T.J. Smith about his new peer support group in St. Anthony. 'I just like helping people.' (T.J. Smith/Facebook)

This Sunday the group will focus on the difference between mental health and mental illness.

Smith admits the meeting place may seem "strange:" Kerry M. Fillatres Funeral Home. But he says the owner offered the space and wanted to help.

Smith said it's actually intimate and comfortable, just like a living room.

He said anyone is welcome to join, including family members who may not know where to turn.

He's hopeful the group may one day expand to other regions, but for now Smith is taking it one meeting at a time.

"I can give the message of hope. Tell them to stay strong."

Anyone who wants to take part in the group can contact Smith on his Facebook page.

With files from the St. John's Morning Show

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