By: Dawn Ostrem

When I moved to Cape Breton five years ago, I mentioned to someone that I had bad nerves.

What I meant was that I got nervous about everyday things; speaking in front of large crowds, or climbing ladders. I didn’t realize, for some people in the older generation, saying “bad nerves” was a way of describing mental illness.


I’m not sure of the range of mental health issues that “bad nerves” covers. However, using the term makes sense. When people are not encouraged to talk about mental health specifically, they may use a gentle, blanket expression. Saying “bad nerves” may sound less frightening than bipolar, alcoholism or depression. So, let’s talk… about stigma.

Let’s replace “mental health” with “physical health” for a moment. It is not out of the ordinary to ask how people are feeling. We ask things like, “how is your bad hip?” or “are you over that nasty cold yet?” These conversations may actually come in second place for small talk frequency after “what do you think of this weather?” But, we don’t generally ask, “how are you feeling mentally today; is your recovery going well?” or “are you digging your way through this bout of depression alright?” It would feel like you were meddling, to be sure. Conversations about mental health are often secretive and hidden. A person may ask, but not during every day chit chat, lest the conversation be embarrassing. While it is not necessary to pry, when the opportunity to discuss mental health presents itself, it’s good thing that our comfort level is changing.

Perhaps no one wants to be asked about their health, mental or otherwise, when seeing friends on the street. But that does not mean we shouldn’t invite people to talk more openly in our small communities. Why? “Talking is the best way to start breaking down the barriers associated with mental illness,” according to the Bell Let’s Talk campaign. “But, sometimes it’s hard to know what to say.”

While it is important to think hard about the agenda any corporation may have for running a campaign, it is also important to place value on the widespread way in which Let’s Talk has put mental health on the radar since it began in 2011. It has been a huge reason for increased comfort levels. There may be valuable criticism about who receives the $100 million raised but increasing the conversation is Let’s Talk’s real success. And that takes time.

Someone you know may be dealing with severe depression, for example. He or she has been able to get along well on medication for most of his or her life, but, has never said a word to anyone about the struggle. Imagine if it were diabetes, back problems or recurring bouts of cancer. In places like this many would not think twice about offering a helping hand, a kind word, or token of support. The world of mental health is still eerily silent. A sufferer’s existence is often lonely. While not always easy, finding a way to ease into a conversion about “bad nerves” in a caring and frank way is important.

Then, we can really start talking.

Dawn Ostrem is project coordinator for the MIND-BODY-SPIRIT Project. She can be reached at: mindbodyspiritpc.dkmchc@gmail.com.

The MIND-BODY-SPIRIT Project’s goal is to improve the quality of life for seniors in the Strait-Richmond area. It is entering its second phase of creating a framework for community-based, volunteer-led programming. The programming addresses key areas of mental health and addictions, with an emphasis on the proven connection between social relationships, and feelings of inclusiveness within community, that lead to better health. The MBS grant is administered by the Dr. Kingston Memorial Community Health Centre and is funded by Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness and the Municipality of the County of Richmond.