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Pandemic exposes existing societal mental health vulnerabilities

Sundre therapist urges municipality to be community mentors
MVT-Paul Shippy
Sundre-based mental health therapist Paul Shippy addresses the municipal council on March 14 about addiction as well as mental health and wellness. Simon Ducatel/MVP Staff

SUNDRE — A local mental health therapist recently encouraged the municipality to ramp up efforts to raise awareness about addiction, mental health and wellness as well as to keep the issue front and centre of mind when developing plans for the community.

“It takes a village to raise a village,” said Paul Shippy, adding a new twist on an old adage.

Drawing from a decades-old study to help dispel common public misconceptions about addiction and how to address the issue, Shippy, who between time spent working in both Olds and Sundre has a little more than 10 years of experience, told council during the regular March 14 meeting about a couple of famous experiments that involved rats.

There back in the 1970s was research conducted to test whether an isolated rat in a cage would choose regular water or a cocaine-laced solution.

“That rat just kept feeding off that cocaine dabber until it died,” Shippy said. “It didn’t eat; it didn’t do anything else.”

So, many people erroneously jumped to the conclusion that addiction stems purely from a chemical dependency, he said.

However, another scientist who felt the study was minimalistic and oversimplified decided to conduct a follow-up study that involved creating an entire rat park that on top of the cocaine-laced water featured plenty of other available activities for the animal to engage in, he said.

Almost miraculously — because cocaine provides a powerfully tempting dopamine boost — the rat, having access to a variety of activities and a community of sorts, did not automatically opt to consume the cocaine solution, he said.

“In fact, it seldom chose the cocaine, which kind of shows that when you give an organism the right kind of landscape, they don’t go straight for that chemical,” he told council.  

“So, when we collectively look at mental health, there’s certain things that are big ticket items — community, a sense of connectivity, purpose and meaning, physical activity.”

That human connection is key to combatting community addiction and mental health issues, he said, urging people to be curious and educate themselves as opposed to just passing judgement.  

“I don’t see addictions as problems in and of themselves,” he said. “I see them as symptoms of something else. And there’s a lot of symptoms in this community.”

Research has consistently shown time and again that effectively managing for example depression or anxiety involves a combination of spending time outdoors and physical activity, he said.

Shippy, who sees somewhere in the vicinity of 1,000 clients annually, said nobody is immune to experiencing mental health and wellness struggles that might push them toward substance abuse to distract themselves from experiencing some sort of discomfort in life.

Whether as a result of the death of a loved one or perhaps a pet, even someone who would otherwise consider themselves mentally strong can develop anxiety or depression, he said, adding he in a few instances has also worked with people who are bi-polar and sometimes even suffering from schizophrenia.

“What I’m working to do, is ease the suffering. It’s a job I take super seriously,” he said. “By and large, the people that I work with are not mentally ill — I don’t like that term — but they are impacted.

“We can all become emotionally impacted by something."

The pandemic has highlighted societal vulnerabilities, he said.

There are other instances such as the aftermath of disastrous weather events that can bring people together under the common cause of supporting one another through a hard time, he said.  

“I wish that we didn’t have to have a crisis to connect,” he said, adding that’s where the municipality might be able to play a part. “What role can administration and council play in fostering all these aspects of wellness by design without having a crisis?”

That multi-faceted equation should include considering what he called “wellness by design” when developing plans and projects for the community.

Not unlike safety by design, such as installing guard rails on stairs to prevent people from falling, wellness by design can involve many approaches, he said.

Making clear he was not attempting to criticize the municipality, Shippy said he wanted to highlight courses of action that seem to be effective in helping improve people’s overall mental health and well-being.

Actions the municipality can take include sweeping streets without delay when spring comes to get people and kids back on their bikes, scooters and skateboards sooner than later, maintaining the local trail network with regular mowing in the summer and plowing main sidewalks in the winter, making available the outdoor rink during the winter, as well as supporting local groups that are involved in organizing events for the community, he said.

“There’s a lot of good things that have been done,” he said, recognizing the municipality already does most of those. “I guess the negative part, is we just need more.”

Additionally, he said it’s important to lead by example and show people how to connect, which can sometimes involve showing a level of vulnerability.

“I’m an agent of change when it comes to mental health; I’m trying to support people to make change,” he said, adding that everybody must be onboard to maximize the chances of success.

“We would be like the rat park, we would be hanging out with our rat buddies, doing rat things, and not necessarily trying to avoid discomfort because we would be feeling less discomfort.”

Coun. Chris Vardas said the municipality tries to do what it can when it comes to supporting for example parks, trails and outdoor events.

“What else is it that you really, really need from council to help get your message out?” asked Vardas.

In a nutshell, Shippy said all of council’s decisions should be run through a filter that assesses how a proposed plan or project might improve the community’s overall mental health and wellness.

Furthermore, members of council and administration can also play a leadership role as mentors who are visibly engaged in the community.

Coun. Jaime Marr asked whether the area might require additional mental health workers and where the community stands in terms of its ability to respond to potential red flags.

“I would say better than a lot of places,” said Shippy, adding there’s no significant backlog on a wait list.   

However, he added that any female clients who might request a consultation with a woman would be referred to Olds, which is capable of working with people from throughout the region.  

“It’s always good to have more” mental health and wellness support staff, he said, adding additional family therapy options would also be beneficial.

Expressing appreciation for Shippy’s presentation, Mayor Richard Warnock said he looks forward to continued discussions, and council proceeded to accept the presentation as information.

Simon Ducatel

About the Author: Simon Ducatel

Simon Ducatel joined Mountain View Publishing in 2015 after working for the Vulcan Advocate since 2007, and graduated among the top of his class from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology's journalism program in 2006.
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