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Dr. Pat Deegan speaks on mental illness and recovery; escaping a "life of handicaptivity"

By Celina Ip

Renowned psychologist Dr. Pat Deegan touched upon her own personal experiences recovering from mental illness during a keynote speech at a seminar organized by the Mental Health Services of Renfrew County on March 1.

Renowned psychologist Dr. Pat Deegan touched upon her own personal experiences recovering from mental illness during a keynote speech at a seminar organized by the Mental Health Services of Renfrew County on March 1.

“What’s your reason to get up in the morning?”


This was a question posed multiple times by Dr. Pat Deegan during a special presentation on the topic of mental illness and recovery on March 1st at Pembroke’s Clarion Hotel.

Close to 200 people attended the free seminar, hosted by Mental Health Services of Renfrew County, a program administered by the Pembroke Regional Hospital. The two-hour session featured keynote speaker Dr. Pat Deegan, along with several panellists, information displays from regional support agencies and an opportunity to ask questions.

Deegan, an Adjunct Professor at Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine is a recognized thought leader in the field of behavioural health recovery. In her one-hour presentation, Deegan shared a very detailed overview of her own personal journey of recovery after being diagnosed with schizophrenia in her teens.

Throughout her childhood and adolescence, Deegan was a talented athlete with a bright promising future.

Upon being diagnosed with schizophrenia around 18 years of age, Deegan was treated with high doses of medication that her into despair and withdrawal from her active lifestyle.

Deegan’s entire life came to a standstill as she was thrown into what she describes as “a life in handicaptivity”.

“The image of static on an analog TV really captures what I was feeling. I felt like I had been erased and was in some kind of chemical hibernation. My sparkle had been crushed and my mind was a void,” said Deegan. “It was as if I was living in chemical restraints that were creating walls that were as thick and as impenetrable as any institutional walls leaving me just as isolated from my world and very alienated from myself. I wasn’t living at all.”

Deegan outlined her frustrations in dealing with a care team who didn’t share her vision of an appropriate outcome. They felt treatment was successful in that it stopped the progression of her illness, but she felt it wasn’t a success if she wasn’t “living” or achieving the quality of life she wanted.

But while her care team failed her, it was Deegan’s grandmother who eventually broke through that static and helped Deegan to escape that life of handicaptivity and take her first real step towards recovery.

“I spent most of my days sleeping and would only get up to smoke some cigarettes. But every day my grandmother would stop by to invite me to go grocery shopping with her and it became this daily moment that broke through that static in my mind and reminded me that there is a beautiful world out there,” said Deegan. “One day I accepted her invitation and it was that moment when I was pushing that cart down the A&P aisle that was my first step to recovery.”

Not long after, Deegan refrained from being a passive victim of her illness as she realized her true calling in life and started to become an expert in her own and others journey of mental health recovery.

“Something important had shifted in me and it lifted that despair a little bit as I found some meaning in my life,” said Deegan. “I needed to become Dr. Deegan so I could change the mental health system so no one ever got hurt in it again.”

Once Deegan experienced that breakthrough, she began getting up every morning with a newfound purpose.

“So for me recovery means finding each of our own extraordinary reasons for getting up in the morning. What gets you out of bed every morning? What puts a smile on your face?” said Deegan. “Back then when I was 18, I realized I wanted to become Dr. Deegan and that became my reason to get up in the morning. Now, along with being Dr. Deegan, my reason to get up in the morning is my dog Bob. I take him for a walk every morning to jumpstart my day.”

Deegan stressed that a huge catalyst in recovery is finding that sense of meaning and purpose – some way to give back to others or some way of feeling needed by others.

“Those reasons to get up in the morning are what I call our personal medicines. They are the things that give our lives meaning and purpose and that put a smile on our face and bring us joy. They are also the things we do that help us to get well and help us to stay well,” said Deegan.

Following her keynote presentation, Deegan was joined by three other presenters for a panel discussion in which each shared their own perspectives and personal experiences with mental health illness and recovery. Paul McIntyre, president of the Mental Illness Caregiver Association of Canada, brought his educational knowledge and passion to the table. From a father’s perspective, McIntyre expressed that helping a loved one with mental illness is a lifelong journey, and one in which people are not alone. “As a parent your first response it to try and fix them which then leads to a sense of hopelessness when you realize you can’t,” he said, adding that being able to network with other families while sharing experience and knowledge can be a great thing.

August Mcrea, peer support worker for Mental Health Services of Renfrew County touched upon her journey in overcoming trauma, mental illness and poverty.

Now using her experiences to challenge stigma and help others on their journey to recovery, Mcrea expressed that she focuses on making “amazing authentic connections with others” and teaching them about the importance of self-care.

Sabine Mersmann, Pembroke Regional Hospital vice-president of patient services for seniors and community care, shared her knowledge from working with Renfrew County’s Mental Health Services program for more than 16 years.

Mersmann spoke about a number of current and future local initiatives to improve the mental health system, including planned health hubs for youth and young adults and a partnership between Mental Health Services of Renfrew County and Carefor to create more supportive housing.

Mersmann said that, while a lot of mental health treatment still tends to be based on traditional care models, the integration of peer support workers are an important and positive steps towards developing services that support a recovery based model of self care and empowerment.

“A successful evening like this sends a powerful message that this is an important area of care and that we all need to work together to further improve the system,” she said.

For those who missed the session, the Mental Health Services of Renfrew County (MHSRC) offers a range of programs designed to restore personal health, functionality and recovery. Their programs support mental wellness and recovery for individuals 16 years of age and older, living in Renfrew County, who are in distress or living with mental illness and/or addiction.

For more information, visit: or call toll free at 1-800-991-7711 ext. 8006. 

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