UnderstandUs Leading the Way in Mental Health Awareness

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In 2011, Regina resident Jim Demeray founded the registered non-profit UnderstandUs to create public awareness and promote a better understanding of mental health. He began this grassroots initiative in his father’s honour. In 2018, Jim was recognized for his efforts as a recipient of a CBC Saskatchewan Future 40 award.

Jim lived in Sarnia, Ontario until the age of 12 when his family moved to Regina for his father’s career. He has a degree in human resources from the University of Regina and graduated in 2006. Always athletic, Jim grew up playing sports like hockey and lacrosse. Facing a high level of anxiety and stress in his own life, in 2007 Jim was first diagnosed by a health professional with generalized anxiety disorder.

In his professional life, Jim was general manager of Earls Kitchen + Bar in Regina for eight years and then worked in construction. “I found some people, for example, some co-workers and acquaintances, to be dismissive of my mental illness — like I was playing the victim. As a result, I felt isolated and vulnerable. I wanted to add to people’s understanding of mental health and shed light on a universal topic,” explains Jim.

Jim’s father passed away from a heart attack in 2011 and Jim felt that his father had suffered from depression throughout his life, without ever talking about his challenges or taking care of himself. “UnderstandUs was originally one project to honour my father’s memory — selling t-shirts to raise mental health awareness. The t-shirts sold out right away and I realized that I could expand on the initiative through slow organic growth. By 2018, I was working full-time for UnderstandUs as executive director. We are still a small organization; we do a lot with a little.” The board of directors of UnderstandUs is volunteer and composed of “a combination of business, medical and educational professionals.”

Today, money raised from apparel, donations, events or sponsorship helps fund educational workshops in classrooms for Saskatchewan youth (workshops are conducted by UnderstandUs). These classroom sessions are aimed at students who are grade six and up.

The non-profit also develops awareness campaigns and maintains a resource-based website to provide tools for those dealing with mental health barriers. The feel of the website is approachable and youthful. Jim describes the organization’s stylish branding as targeted at those individuals aged 18 to 30.

UnderstandUs is cognizant of its role in Saskatchewan’s health care sphere. Its website is clear that the organization “provides advocacy and awareness but we are not, nor do we intend to be mental health professionals. If you require immediate assistance please seek appropriate help.”

Jim describes addressing mental wellness as a spectrum. “The far left of the spectrum is advocacy, education, creating conversations and encouraging individuals to take ownership of their own mental health. The far right would include crisis and long-term care that serves individuals with debilitating conditions that require immediate medical help.”

Jim is also clear that stabilizing medications, such as antidepressants, can be “part of a recipe” for mental wellness along with lifestyle adjustments and changes to thinking patterns. Any decision about medication should be made by a medical professional.

What’s next for UnderstandUs as an organization? Jim says, “A great way to support UnderstandUs would be to purchase clothing over the holidays, including at pop-up stores.” Ideas for branded gifts include art prints, t-shirts, tank tops, hats, hoodies and crewneck sweaters. On a strategic level, Jim says “we hope to grow our initiative in Saskatchewan over the next year.”  UnderstandUs is always appreciative of volunteers and in-kind community partnerships.

According to “Mental Illness and Addiction: Facts and Statistics” on the camh.ca website, the following statistics relate to the importance of creating awareness of mental health issues in Canada:

  • In any given year, one in five Canadians experiences a mental illness or addiction problem.
  • By the time Canadians reach 40 years of age, one in two have — or have had — a mental illness.
  • 70 per cent of mental health problems have their onset during childhood or adolescence.
  • Young people aged 15 to 24 are more likely to experience mental illness and/or substance use disorders than any other age group.

 

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Photos courtesy UnderstandUs