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Mental health is like Mount Everest

Mental health is like Mount Everest

On June 9, Eric Windeler, Com'82, and founder of Jack.org,  came back to Queen's University to receive an honorary degree, in recognition of his work in mental health.  This is what he said to the members of the class of 2015.

[photo of Eric Windeler at Queen's convocation]
Eric Windeler speaks to members of the class of 2015. Photo: University Communications

This great university was founded in 1841, by Royal Charter issued by Queen Victoria, a full 26 years before Canada was even born. I’m so honoured to have this deepening connection with Queen’s, and I’m delighted to congratulate and address the class of 2015 as you pass through these doors and enter the next, exciting phase of your life.

The last time I was in Grant Hall, President Jimmy Carter was receiving an honorary degree. He stood at this podium. I was a guest. The former leader of the free world. A legendary humanitarian. And now me, a father and mental health advocate.

So, Class of 2015, either you guys got seriously short-changed, or we’re making some tangible progress in the field of mental health!

It’s already 5 years since we lost Jack.

In the natural course, Jack should be up here crossing this stage … and I should be in the audience, a proud father, like I will be in two days when my son Benjamin graduates at McMaster. 

Our bright, funny Jack. Blonde haired, blue-eyed Jack. Brother, son, grandson, cousin and friend Jack. Just beginning his adult life Jack. One day, suddenly, he was gone. It's not fair. We were devastated. And we didn’t see it coming. 

And we didn’t see what came next either.

Dozens of events. Hundreds of speeches. Thousands of supporters. Millions of dollars raised. Now - 700 student leaders from every province and territory attending Jack Summit. Now - 50 students being trained to safely and energetically deliver Jack Talks to over 150 audiences across Canada next school year. Now - and this is amazing - 75 student-led Jack Chapters signed up at high schools, colleges and universities across Canada – getting ready to unleash some serious noise about mental health. And we’re just getting started!

It’s humbling. And it all started here. At Queen’s University.

Both the hard part - losing Jack. 

But also the incredible part. Because here at Queen’s is where we made a critical shift towards an enlightened student engagement model - and in particular - a student leadership model. Our job is to empower young leaders. Their job is to reach their peers with our message.

And our message is crystal clear: While 1 in 5 of us will struggle with mental illness, 5 in 5 of us (we ALL) have mental health. We ALL have mental health. We ALL need to learn how to take care of our own mental health, just like we do our physical health. We ALL need to understand where to find resources and most importantly, how to support a friend. 

I’m so grateful for this significant recognition of our work. There's not enough room on this stage for all the people who put me here. They should all be up here together and we should all be receiving this award as ONE. 

A special thanks to Principal Woolf and Julie Gordon-Woolf, whose incredible leadership around the topic of mental health will be, in my opinion, their most lasting legacy at Queen’s.

My amazing family, my mother Jean, Jack’s Nana, Jack’s brother and sister Ben and Julia who we’re so proud of. Our closest friends Gillian Evans and David Toyne, Bill and Sally Morris, Steve and Judy Goddard - and too many more friends to mention them all by name. 

These people saved us … but they did more … they provided critical support and encouragement to help us launch this national movement of young leaders who are changing the way we think about mental health.

But my most special thank you goes to the person who should be here beside me now. Because she has been my support, my guide, and she’s loved me through all of this. I would not be here. Our work would not be where it is today without her. Let me introduce - as the students at Jack Summit call her, #JacksMum. Ladies and gentlemen, my wife, Sandra Hanington. 

So, while 10% of my life has flashed by – there are two things that I know to be true – two things I’d like the Class of 2015 to remember.

The first thing: Mental Health is like Mount Everest. You need to know this. It makes all our physical health challenges look like mere foothills by comparison. It’s the biggest, tallest, most baddass mountain. It can be treacherous. And you will all have to climb it yourself one day – or help a friend who’s on the mountainside. And if you’re struggling on this mountain, the only way you’ll get to the top, or safely back to base camp is with help. Probably from a close friend, or a professional guide who can help you find the way. So get ready to climb … and if the time comes, be sure to ask for help, and always be ready or help your friend. Class of 2015 - I know this to be true - Mental Health is like Mount Everest.

The second thing: The young people of today are SO capable – that’s you! - and you will do amazing things. I know, because I work almost exclusively with young people across Canada just like you. You are so smart and creative - and when you’re passionate about something - you transform into leaders. And that’s when the magic happens. You may not feel like that’s possible right now. Job prospects might be dim. You’re probably a bit uncertain of “what you want to do”. You may be getting more parental pressure than I would recommend. So I have a suggestion. While you’re figuring it all out … or maybe working at a less than ideal job … take some time to volunteer at something you really, really care about. Do something purely because you care about it. You’ll get so much more back than you give. Class of 2015, I know this to be true, you, the graduates of Queen’s are SO capable – and you will do amazing things.

In conclusion … I’d like to share my personal dream:

I imagine a place where mental health won’t be a special topic like it is today.

I imagine a place where we will all treat our mental health just like we do out physical health. 

I imagine a place where any young person who is struggling - will have a chance for support and treatment – regardless of their financial circumstances. 

I imagine a place where we don’t even need the word “mental health” – it will all be just “health”. 

I think my dream is possible – and yours is possible too.  

Thank you.