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‘There is still a lot of fear and mystery’: Mental illness de-stigmatized at upcoming Nelson event

Victoria Maxwell will present to students at L.V. Rogers, and to parents and the public May 9
Victoria Maxwell, who has been hospitalized several times because of mental illness, will speak in Nelson on May 9. Photo: Bonny Makarewicz

Victoria Maxwell calls herself a wellness warrior.

As a young adult she was hospitalized several times with anxiety, bipolar disorder and psychosis. Her road to recovery was long and arduous. Now she gives presentations about her experience in an effort to de-stigmatize mental illness.

But she doesn’t call it a presentation. She prefers the words “performance” and “show.”

“It is like a one-person stage play,” she says. “It’s not just me speaking, it is me acting it out. There are no props and no tech, but it takes people on a journey. There are characters in the story, people who helped me.”

As a professional speaker on the lived experience of mental illness and recovery, Maxwell calls upon her theatre background, personal experience of psychiatric illness, and expertise as a group facilitator and mental health worker.

The performances include a lot of humour – harmless humour that does not stigmatize, and there are no jokes at anyone’s expense. It’s the humour that will draw in her teenage audience, she says.

Maxwell will speak to an assembly at L.V. Rogers Secondary School on May 9, with another performance for parents and the general public that same evening at LVR.

High school audiences are usually very attentive, she says.

While a significant number of young people are experiencing significant mental health troubles, particularly since the pandemic, Maxwell says it is also true that mental health is more easily talked about than a decade ago.

“Back then the amount of mental health in the news and on people’s radar was less. Now you can’t go a day without hearing about mental health in the media.

“But there is still a way to go. There are levels, there is a hierarchy of stigma. We are more comfortable talking about anxiety and depression. But bipolar, schizophrenia, psychosis — there is still a lot of fear and mystery around those.”

Karen and Chuck Bennett of Nelson organized Maxwell’s upcoming appearance in Nelson after their 24-year-old daughter went through some difficult mental health struggles.

“Through our journey with our daughter’s mental health,” says Chuck, “we found out how prevalent it was in other families. And so we thought it would be beneficial in our community to start a conversation around mental health, and we thought this would be a good way to do it.”

Karen says their daughter was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and the family has gone through three years of hospitals and suicide prevention.

“We felt alone and lonely and struggled with the system,” said Chuck. “And we feel like there are so many people are suffering, and there is not a ton of conversation about it.”

So the Bennetts created Start the Conversation, an organization dedicated to local mental health education. Their first project is bringing Maxwell to Nelson, in partnership with School District 8 and L.V. Rogers Secondary.

“If your kid broke their leg at the ski hill you would be on social media saying I am in an emergency,” says Karen, “but when you are in the emergency room because you are worried about self harm or worried about suicide, we don’t talk about it even though those instances are far more life-threatening and stressful as the parent. We need to get rid of the stigma.”

It’s the stigma that is the target of Maxwell’s work.

“I want to make conversation about mental illness more comfortable, to encourage people to reach out, to help them recognize that it is not a weakness, that all of us are struggling in some way,” she says.

Maxwell’s central message to young people: if you are struggling, reach out to a trusted adult in whom you can confide. This might not be your parents, but could be an aunt or uncle, family friend, teacher, or counsellor. That person can not only listen and empathize, but can also help you find professional support and show you that you are not alone.

For parents, Maxwell says she recognizes this might be new territory. Some feel quite lost if their child is struggling. But she sees many parents responding by reaching out to other parents and to support groups both in person and online.

Parents might also be struggling with their own mental health, so Maxwell invokes the instructions about oxygen masks given on airplanes. Get help for your own mental health issues now, then you will be more equipped to understand and help your child if need be.

Before her performance, especially at schools, Maxwell gives a preface about what she is about to say, “so they know where I am in terms of my own recovery. Not everyone has psychosis or bipolar (as I did).”

The opportunity to have a debrief after her presentation is also important, she says, adding that schools have the resources as a safety net for any kids who might need to speak to someone. During the assembly, students will be provided with a list of resources available in the community.

Tickets for the evening event at 6:30 p.m. on May 9 are $20 and can be purchased at

Proceeds will be used to start a fund for mental health initiatives at the school. A donation will also be made to the LVR girls soccer team as they will be taking an active role in the organization and running of the event.

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Bill Metcalfe

About the Author: Bill Metcalfe

I have lived in Nelson since 1994 and worked as a reporter at the Nelson Star since 2015.
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