Knowing and Owning Your Story: A Conversation with Kelly Scanlan

Kelly Scanlan’s love for her country and community has taken her as far afield as Afghanistan where she served as soldier, as close as her hometown of Mississauga, Ontario where she now serves as a full time firefighter, and onto the playing field where she competed for Canada at the 2017 Invictus Games and became a multi-medalist.

Kelly also works to raise awareness around mental health as a result of her experiences struggling to balance her own mental health after a serious injury and then operational stress in Afghanistan left her anxious, depressed, and battling Post Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). Here is our conversation:

What attracted you to military service and then to wanting to continue to wear a uniform in your career?

It’s funny because it’s not something I ever considered when I was young, but I actually grew up in a uniform family. That includes my parents who are both now retired police officers; my sister is now a police officer, we have – if my count is correct – 8 police officers and 4 firefighters in my family. And then a couple military people thrown in the mix.

[Laughing] It’s in the DNA. And so I was always around that community and that lifestyle and that really inspired me when I was young. I really did think I would follow in those footsteps and serve in a uniform.

 

You describe a feeling you had when you came home from your deployment in Afghanistan: like nothing and everything had changed at the same time. Can you talk about how that impacted you and your mental health?

I’ve always likened to trying to fit a puzzle piece back in that doesn’t fit anymore. When I came home from Afghanistan, I went back to the same neighbourhood I grew up in surrounded by the same people. And there were all these little changes around me, nothing major, but something that I just didn’t see happen. You do just kind of realize that you are now a different person and trying to fit yourself in into that same life just doesn’t work anymore. I think everyone comes back thinking they’ll be the same and most of us just aren’t…

 

I know about your multi-medal performance at the Invictus Games in Toronto; can you share your thoughts on the relationship between exercise, fitness and mental health?

I’m no scientist or mental health expert and I’m sure someone with a background can get really deep into the science of it, but from my own lived experience aside from being a soldier and having to be fit and active, I wasn’t really involved in sports. I wasn’t really involved in anything like that until the opportunity for Invictus came up.

I didn’t sign up for the Invictus Games for the health benefits. I honestly didn’t think there would be a benefit to Invictus. I was at a point in my life where I had tried so many different things and never gotten better over the years that I made a decision that if I couldn’t have a happy life, I could make it interesting. I could just try and do all these interesting things that could all become interesting stories one day.

So I put my name forward for it… especially because we were hosting that year in Toronto and it was Canada 150, I was thinking here we are on home turf and the Royal Family is involved and a bunch of world leaders are involved in this and if I’m representing Canada and I do really badly, I will shame myself and the entire country.

So before I even knew if I made the team I started training. Started simple enough, nothing too crazy… and after 3 or 4 months, I suddenly started noticing changes physically and mentally. I was fitter, I wasn’t in as much pain from the physical injuries I had. And then mentally I noticed I was sleeping better; I noticed that if I had a really good workout earlier in the day then I was in a better mood for the rest of the day. I noticed that I was calmer and more energetic. So I realized the correlation between training physically and how it helped me mentally in the end.

Not being an expert by any means, but the correlation makes perfect sense to me. We know from science that physical fitness creates some of the good, happy chemicals in your brain. I’m sure those help balance out some of the negative chemicals that occur with mental health issues.

When you’re suffering with something like depression, anxiety, PTSD the littlest thing can really knock you down… if you can look after your physical health, even if it doesn’t fix you mentally, because it won’t for everyone, it becomes one less thing for your body and brain to worry about.

 

What are some of the other strategies or things you’ve done that have been effective in balancing out your mental health?

Having people around you who can understand you and normalize the situation. Being involved in peer supported activities…when you have other people around you who also have diagnoses, it’s nice to put yourself in a community group where you can go up to someone and say, “My brain is messing with me today.” And they can go, “I get that. I understand.”

There’s been lots of little things that I’ve developed. Lots of little tips and tricks of reminding and pushing myself to understand that this is an illness just like any other illness people suffer. There’s a reason it happens, there’s science behind why this happens and using that knowledge to remind myself when I’m having a really bad moment that this is my brain or my illness screwing with me. It’s not that it’s not real and that you’re not experiencing it, it’s just remembering that an illness is creating this situation, not reality.

I know the science is constantly changing and readjusting because it’s kind of a new thing that we’re focusing on, but I found studying about mental health issues, learning what scientists are saying about it, learning what mental health experts are saying about it, was a huge help to me because it gave me names and understanding for exactly what was going on; it gave me things to look out for, to know how to relate things to the illness. And then looking at what other people had done to try and negate some of their own challenges gave me a path to try a different direction.

 

How would you describe your mental health today?

Things are great now. Again, everyone has their own perspective on whether you can or can not recover from a mental health issue. I would say I’m recovered. I don’t experience the issues I did before. I don’t experience that dragging depression for no reason. There are still symptoms I work through, but they’re all fairly minor and now I’m just figuring out what the rest of the steps are… I follow what I’ve learned because I also understand I’m at a higher risk to possibly go down that path again based on my history and my job now.

I got off all the medications and I stay in touch with a doctor just to always keep doing check ins – the “check up from the neck up” – but other than that, I’m pretty much good to go.

 

I like that: check up from the neck up.

Yeah, me too. It’s something I learned through the first responder community. They suggest that [new members] go and find a mental health expert, whether you think you need one or not, to get a baseline assessment done. And then once a year you get that check up from the neck up where you can assess where you’re at compared with when you started.

 

What advice would you have to anyone who is considering a career in the military or as a first responder about how to best support their mental health?

Think of your mental health as no different than your physical health. A couple recommendations about a job in uniform: be prepared, you are going into some difficult jobs, jobs that you can’t laze your way through. You constantly have to be pushing yourself to be better: physically, mentally, and you have to be constantly learning. You continuously have to be aware and be developing because the consequences to these jobs can be very high… Go into them understanding you have to work hard and also that this is a job that is so unique in so many ways and you’re going to build a family and a community – a brotherhood and sisterhood that you just don’t find in other industries because you are really forged in situations that most people never find themselves in.

Know [the systems of support available] in advance because when you start to struggle the last thing you’re going to want to do is start to try to figure all this out. And then be ready to address it early. Get on it so that it stays an issue in the short term and doesn’t become a long-term issue that will take down your career or the rest of your life.

The longer you let it sit and settle or the longer you let the stigma and shame and fear stand in your way, the longer it’s just going to eat you up.

 

You’ve talked about the need for us to stop ranking our struggles against one another. Why do you think we do that?

I think we do it because when it comes to mental health people are very quick to create scenarios in their head where we want these big massive scenarios to be behind a mental health issue. Like you have to have been blown up and lost both your legs in Afghanistan or you have to have lost your entire family in a house fire…these awful, awful situations. And then people think that is what is acceptable for a person to be struggling with.

But then when people start to struggle in “lesser” situations, or for something that people don’t understand could be traumatic or as traumatic, they have issues around feeling like they have nothing to complain about. And we do it to others, too, where we compare people against others and end up like, What does he/she have to complain about?

I know the quote you’re talking about – it was for Bell Let’s Talk. I said, and the reason I’m going to say it again is because it really seems to resonate with people; I said, “People drown in oceans and people drown in swimming pools and People drown in bathtubs. It doesn’t matter how much water a person is drowning in, what matters is that they’re drowning and they need to be able to breathe again.”

We’ve created this competition system around suffering. When people say, “It’s nothing like what you went through” – when they would say that to me, it’s what inspired me to come up with that quote… Grief is grief, pain is pain – it doesn’t matter what is causing it. And just because someone may have a different story, it doesn’t make yours irrelevant or unworthy.

 

It’s a real discipline to shut out the critics, even when the critic is yourself, because it takes you believing that you’re worthy. Every person I’ve talked to for this project has taken that risk by starting to talk about what was going on for them; I keep hearing that people will fill in around you if you will risk talking.

They absolutely will. I was so shocked the first time I spoke publicly. Almost no one knew what had been going on for me, just a very tight circle of a few people who knew I had been diagnosed. The first time I was asked to speak publicly it was to the media! Looking back now [laughing] maybe it wasn’t the best place to start!

But it actually was really helpful for me. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done… People are going to say what they’re going to say, but it’s out of my hands. There’s no more hiding or pretending. It helped me develop this mentality of I can’t worry about what everyone else has to say about it. I just have to know that I know my story. I know me. And I know what I’ve been struggling with.

I was surprised at the number of people who came out in support… I started realizing how many people inside my circle who were struggling but everyone kept to themselves and felt so alone when really we were surrounded by a huge group of people who understood. And we all could have been supporting each other but instead we were all busy hiding it.

So when I started [talking] it was therapy for me and now I keep talking about it because I hope that someone hears something in what I say and realizes that these illnesses that have been eating up their lives the way my illness ate up mine, doesn’t always have to control them. It doesn’t have to rule them. There is a way out. There is that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. You just have to find the path.

I was very lucky but I know not everyone has the family support I do. Twenty years ago or even 10 years ago few programs existed to support someone who may be feeling alone. Now mental health issues are being talked about. It’s front and centre. There are lots of in-house and external programs, hot lines, teams and agencies ready to help. It’s finding the courage to take that step or make that call and reach out when you need someone. Even if it is not mental health issue, but someone who just needs to talk. We are all part of a huge uniformed community and there are a lot of people standing beside you ready to help and support you when you need it.

 

I’m so glad to know there are people like you out there in uniform doing what you do. Thank you very much for your service.

Thank you.