One out of 100 people have schizophrenia and three out of 100 people experience psychosis. Schizophrenia is not rare. People need to be aware of it and all the other mental illnesses. Join Douglas Nelson as he talks to the CEO of the British Columbia Schizophrenia Society, Faydra Aldridge. BCSS is a community-based nonprofit organization that focuses on severe and persistent mental illness. Its main goal is to help spread awareness for mental illnesses and take care of the families that are affected by these illnesses. Learn more about mental illness and schizophrenia. Find out how advocacy and awareness work. And, discover how she runs her nonprofit. Join her mission to spread awareness today!
Listen to the podcast here:
British Columbia Schizophrenia Society With Faydra Aldridge
On our show, our guest is Faydra Aldridge. She’s the CEO of the BC Schizophrenia Society. We’re looking forward to the conversation. I’m glad to welcome her as our guest. Welcome, Faydra.
Doug, thanks so much for having me.
For some of our audience who may not be familiar with the work of your organization, please tell us a little bit about the BC Schizophrenia Society.
I’d be happy to, Doug. BCSS, the BC Schizophrenia Society. We are a community-based nonprofit organization. We’ve been around for a long time. We are a unique organization. We are focused on severe and persistent mental illness. We are also focused on the families, including children and youth with a loved one with a serious mental illness. Our main focus is supporting and helping families across British Columbia.
That support for families includes the individual who’s dealing with the long-term mental health issue, I assume?
We don’t provide direct support to individuals living with mental illness. Our main focus is on the family supporting that individual. Obviously, indirectly we are helping that person because there are lots of research demonstrating the incredible impact of having a family support system, both in the wellness and supporting the individual with the mental illness on their journey through the mental health system. Also, support for the family themselves, an illness like schizophrenia and that type of diagnosis is extremely challenging and puts a lot of strain on a family. That’s why we will also need to be there for the family supporting that individual with the illness.
It requires quite a network to understand who those families are and the support that they may need. How do you do your work across the province?
It’s essential that we get the word out there about BCSS and the services we provide. We do that through community partnerships through our communications channels. We also have a podcast to spread awareness and get information out there. It’s connecting with the families in as many different ways as we possibly can so they know that they are not alone and there are support systems in place that can help them navigate the system and give them the information that they need to proceed and to best support their loved one.
That’s powerful. Your background before you were the CEO at BC Schizophrenia Society was adjacent to the worker in the health sector. Tell us a little bit about how you got to become the CEO. What were you doing leading up to taking on this important?
I know it’s been quite a journey, Doug, I must say. Don’t we all have a journey and a story to tell? I am formally trained as a journalist. I do have a communications background. I was a CBC Morning Show producer. Even when I was a journalist, my passion has always been in health. My beat was health. It was something that I’ve always been very interested in both professionally and personally.
I was with the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute. I was with that organization for a long time and then I made the shift over to BCSS. I have been involved with health for a long time. I was also involved with the Y in Northern British Columbia as well. Nonprofit and health is where my heart is. Now, I’ve been with BCSS for several years.
That combination of being a journalist and a storyteller of sorts and the leader of a social prophet, I’m sure that the skillset comes in quite handy on a fairly regular basis.
Hearing about people’s stories and people’s lives and what we can do to make improvements is the heart of BCSS. It’s something that is certainly near and dear to my heart as well.
How did you go through the experience? As a journalist, you’re finding the people, telling those stories, sharing them with the world. Now, as the CEO of BC Schizophrenia Society, you’re finding and sharing those stories, then your organization takes action to support those families. Is that a connection you were looking forward to? How do you put those two pieces together?
I’m impressed, Doug, that you were able to make that connection and that’s exactly it. That’s why. In fact, I know it is. Journalism and communications are my foundation. It’s something that is inherent in me to be able to hear people’s stories and to be able to find those messages that can have an impact. To your point, I was looking for something where I could make a difference. As much as I love being a journalist, I was also looking for that action piece. I wanted to be able to implement what I was hearing and be able to move forward with those stories that I was hearing from people.
That’s where BCSS has been absolutely incredible because we, as an organization, are able to provide that support to families and have tangible results in the difference that we can make in family lives. That’s where having that connection between journalism and implementation has been essential for me as a leader and with the team that I get to work with.Because of the lack of awareness, people don't know what to do when a loved one has a serious mental illness. Click To Tweet
It is a unique skill set or an uncommon skill set for leaders of social profit organizations. In your organization, in particular, it is essential because not only are you telling the stories, sharing the stories and supporting the families. You’re also trying to change the story about how people think about schizophrenia in society.
My goal right from the beginning was to figure out how I could best support the frontline team working directly with the families across BC but also to increase awareness about serious mental illness. That’s something that’s essential. Doug, we’ve come a long way when it comes to serious mental illness and looking at mental illness as a whole, but we still have a long way to go. As a society, we’ve come a long way when it comes to looking at chronic disorders. Say, for example, cancer. If somebody in your life has cancer, you wrap your arms around them. “What can I do for you?” I always joke, “What casserole can I bring you?” What can I do to support you if you or your loved one has cancer?
Whereas, if somebody in your close circle says that either they, themselves or a loved one has a serious mental illness, we as a society tend not to know what to do. We don’t know how to react. If anything, rather than leaning in, we tend to lean back. We tend to take that step back because we don’t know how to react. That’s something that BCSS tried to do, increase awareness about severe and persistent mental illness and to also differentiate between mental health and mental illness.
This is something that has come out through our global pandemic and through COVID-19, where there’s been a huge increase in talk around depression, anxiety, the issue and the importance of mental health. One thing we can’t forget is that there’s a big difference between mental health and mental illness. Mental health is something we all need to be concerned about whether we have a mental illness or not. Mental illness is a disorder like cancer and Parkinson’s. Any other chronic disorder, it’s an illness and we need to treat it as an illness. My main goal in stepping into BCSS and working with this amazing team that I have is to support them but also to get people talking about severe and persistent mental illness.
That focus on persistent and severe mental illnesses, it’s often a detail or an important underlying component of other issues in society. The opioid crisis I know is one and focus on mental health and mental wellness through the pandemic. How has that focus where schizophrenia, for example, shows up in some of those stories? How does that help or hinder the conversation you’re wanting to have broadly about schizophrenia and it is that persistent disease?
To your point, Doug, there are so many social, societal, as well as economic impacts of schizophrenia and bipolar and other serious and persistent mental illnesses. There’s a huge increase in suicide rates, incarceration rates, homelessness, substance use. We’re not only in quotations dealing with the illness itself but everything that surrounds that illness.
That’s why it’s so essential that we start looking at the root cause and trying to figure out the next steps that we, as a number of nonprofit organizations with the provincial government, what we can do together to make changes because it’s not “just the illness.” It has so many other implications that we need to start dealing with and continuing to make progress in.
The issue around the stigma that you’ve talked a little bit about here. Stigma often comes from fear. Removing stigma is a process of removing or lessening fear or putting fear where it belongs rather than right upfront. How does BCSS approach that issue of stigma?
Stigma is huge. I’m so glad you brought that up. The only way we are going to be able to deal with and address the issue of stigma is to keep talking, to raise awareness about what severe and persistent mental illness is and to be real about it. Where violence, for example, is a component of serious mental illness. It is a reality. If somebody is treated, then there are no more likely to harm or injure somebody else or themselves than you and I.
The key is treatment. That’s where we need to have these real conversations about what severe and persistent mental illness is. Violence can be a factor and people’s delusions and hallucinations and paranoia. There are also cognitive impairments. There’s a social withdrawal that people who are experiencing psychosis do act differently.
That I think is crucial and essential that we talk about those differences, look at some of the behaviors surrounding somebody experiencing psychosis and figure out how to deal with the stigma that is associated with it. The only way we’re going to be able to address some of that stigma is through awareness and through a show like this, by talking about it and getting into the nitty-gritty of what it means to have an illness. What we, as a society, as a whole, can do to address the issues.
Unfortunately, schizophrenia is a very highly misunderstood illness. There are still many myths surrounding it. For example, many people still think that it’s multiple personalities, which is not. There’s still a lot of emphasis on what role the mother played. Schizophrenia is not rare. One out of 100 people has schizophrenia. 3 out of 100 people experienced psychosis. Schizophrenia is not an illness that happens out there to somebody out there in the community. The majority of us would either be directly or indirectly impacted by schizophrenia or know somebody that has schizophrenia. 1 out of 100 is not rare. That’s why we need to keep talking about this illness.
You’ve been doing a very good job of it over the years of your time as CEO there. Thinking very tactically, practically for the audience, you said that if you hear someone in your life, an acquaintance, a family member, a friend with a cancer diagnosis, take a casserole and wrap your arms around them as a community. What would you like to see more British Colombians and Canadians do when they hear of a family member who’s been diagnosed with schizophrenia? What can people do to help? What would you want them to be doing to help that family?
I would like to see people leaning in. What I mean by that is the casserole and wrapping your arms around them but also asking what you can do to best support that person and to encourage them to seek help and to seek help early. There’s a tendency with a diagnosis, or when people start seeing a loved one experience delusions or hallucinations, or the paranoia or the social withdrawal. I don’t know if it’s denial. You don’t want to believe that anything could be wrong with your loved one. Whether it be a friend, your partner, your daughter, your sister.
It’s almost too difficult to face. We tend to go into denial. Research consistently shows that the sooner an individual can get help, then the better off they’re going to be. What I would like to see is people leaning in both for support but also to encourage them to seek help and to seek help as early as possible.
Make sure people haven’t isolated themselves as they’re providing care for a loved one who’s managing that condition.The only way to really address mental illness stigma is to raise awareness. Click To Tweet
You can imagine what a family member goes through to see their son, for example, experiencing delusions, hallucinations, seeing things, feeling things that aren’t there and watching them almost transform before your eyes. You can imagine the difficulties that a family would face. That’s where I think we, as a society, need to lean into that family member to say, “What can we do as a friend, as an organization? As somebody walking down the street. What can I do to help you at this moment?”
That’s where I would like to see a shift happen, both in the awareness about what severe and persistent mental illness is, the importance of getting treatment and getting treatment early and addressing all the other components that go along with serious mental illness, including homelessness, suicide. Looking at the justice system, what changes can we make as a society?
Those that you’re referencing there require consistent advocacy across a broad spectrum of government agencies and the community opinion in general. What is the role of advocacy in your organization?
Advocacy plays a huge role, Doug. We have an active policy committee. We are outspoken around certain and key issues. Advocacy is inherent to being a nonprofit, being able to support a cause, helping others find their voice. As we know, there’s a large spectrum of advocacy, whether it be a parent advocating on behalf of their child who has a mental illness or the other end of the spectrum, an organization advocating for a system or a major policy shift within a province or within our country. There’s a large spectrum but advocacy, being that voice and speaking up, is essential for BCSS and any nonprofit organization supporting a group of people.
Advocacy is challenging. You say it’s inherent in the sector and to a certain extent, it certainly is. One of the received wisdom in the social profit sector in Canada is you can invest in research or root cause. You can invest in providing service or in advocacy. Pick two but preferably only one. We see it through our work at The Discovery Group. We see organizations trying to fit advocacy in as not an afterthought but an extension of the core work that they’re already doing. It fits uncomfortably within the organization.
I’ve thought a lot about why that is. I agree that advocacy plays an essential role for social profit organizations. One of the challenges is that it takes so long. It is a conversation over a long, extended period of time. I’m curious how you, as leader of an organization and anyone who is reading, get a sense of your impatience and your urgency around the work that you do. How do you balance the long-term nature of significant advocacy and social change with the immediacy of the needs that families are facing now?
Doug, that is the million-dollar question right there. To be able to balance the needs of the population that we serve or not just we as BCSS but any organization. To be able to find that balance between managing the immediate needs of the population you’re serving with the long-term aspirations and vision to be able to create the change that is necessary at a societal level is the question.
We’re all trying to find the answer. I certainly don’t have that answer. It’s something where, to your point, it does. Advocacy takes a long time. You may know where you need to get to but how you get there may shift along the way. You may end up going down different paths before you get to that end result that you’re hoping for.
It does take a long time. It takes persistence, hard work, and different avenues. You can’t stay and say, “We’re going to get to point X and go from point A to point X.” There are so many different steps that you have to get through to be able to reach that endpoint. That’s where communication plays a large role. That’s where partnerships, relationships, talking through different social media realms. There are so many different ways to increase awareness and to get people talking. The million-dollar question is, how to balance those immediate needs and truly being the voice of the population that you’re serving?
How do you balance that conversation with your board? I would imagine your board agrees with the advocacy mission is right behind it and because it takes a long time, it’s hard to see the tangible benefits. How do you talk about your advocacy around the board table?
I’m fortunate, Doug because I report to the society board. We also have a foundation board. We have a policy committee, which I mentioned before. Our policy committee is active and it’s all run by volunteers. I’m fortunate that I have such a dedicated and loyal group of volunteers that are willing to give up their time because they’re so passionate about this cause and this area. It is something that’s discussed a lot, both at the board level and with a policy committee, what are our long-term goals.
If I had all the money in the world for organization, I would be able to love to have a whole team designated to advocacy, but unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury of having that person. It is essentially run by volunteers and done on the side of the desk of my team, myself included. We do what we can.
If any nonprofits out there have any other suggestions on how to find that answer to your million-dollar question, I am open to discussing it. It’s something that we, as nonprofits, all struggle with because we know the importance of advocacy, supporting a cause and working for a mission-driven organization. Finding that long-term advocacy piece and managing it with the immediate needs of the organization and the population we serve is a difficult balance.
It is essential to the work that you and your colleagues and the volunteer leadership that you have there at BCSS. Faydra, can you give us an example of when the advocacy has worked, where you think, “God, the needle is starting to move?”
We are very involved with the Mental Health Act and supporting the provincial government around the BC Mental Health Act. I don’t know if the needle is changing but I think we, as an organization, are getting people thinking about, for example, the BC Mental Health Act. Another area is the importance of talking about schizophrenia and the illnesses that, for a long time, we didn’t want to discuss, that we wanted to forget about and not address and because of the stigma. I’m going to give you an example of the stigma that still exists. This story resonated with me. I work in a high-rise building in Vancouver. There’s a multitude of organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, that work in this building.
There’s a young man down the hall. I could tell that he wanted to speak with me. I don’t have my title or my name on my door but I could tell that he was very hesitant. He would stop outside my door because I could tell that he wanted to talk to me. I never knew why he wanted to. Finally, I said, “Would you like to come into my office? I get the sense that you’d like to talk to me.” Do you know what he said, Doug? He said, “I would love to talk to you but I’m afraid that you have schizophrenia and that I will catch it from you.”Advocacy is inherent to being a nonprofit. Click To Tweet
Right there, it confirmed that there’s a well-educated individual who wanted to discuss schizophrenia, didn’t know how to bring it up and was afraid that he could catch it from me. That shows the amount of stigma that is still involved. I know I went off track but it’s an important story for all of us to hear. Due to stigma, we still have such a long way to go when it comes to serious mental illness and moving that needle on advocacy and truly making change within our society.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask the question I’m thinking because I’m sure our audiences are too. What did you say to him?
I explained. He did want to talk to me. He wanted more information about it. He had a loved one that was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He wanted more information, but he knew nothing about the illness, which is more than fair. Many people don’t know anything about this illness, no judgment there. I was glad that he reached out, but I kindly explained that I did not have schizophrenia. Even if I did have it, I couldn’t give it to him. It’s not contagious. That was the conversation that we had and he was to be able to get help for the person in his life.
That is a powerful story for the importance of awareness. I want to push on a little bit on that because one of the things that we encounter with a lot many organizations saying we need more awareness. The pushing that we do is, who do you need to be aware of? What do you want them to do? A lot of organizations struggle to articulate what awareness will do for them.
What we often hear is an answer similar to, “We want people to know that this exists because people that are experiencing this journey, regardless of what the condition is, or the families around the individuals need to know that people understand what they’re going through.” While very human and passionate.
There’s a lot of empathy and sympathy that can go along with that. It’s very difficult to make that an organizational goal or an organizational outcome. The story you shared makes it a very clear case for the importance of awareness, not just advocacy for BCSS. How do you balance or pair your awareness-raising work with your advocacy to policymakers or the power to change the circumstances of individuals dealing with schizophrenia?
The two are closely aligned. Through awareness, you can create or begin to create advocacy and begin to be able to move that needle. Without awareness, you’re not going to have advocacy. You need to have that awareness piece and an understanding of what issue you’re speaking about and who was involved and the impacts before you can get into that advocacy piece. Advocacy is a large spectrum. There’s advocating on an individual level, a parent advocating on behalf of a child or that system organization advocating for system or systemic policy change but you need to have the awareness first. I see your point.
We talk about the need to increase awareness but in addition to awareness, you also need action. That’s where nonprofits and organizations like BCSS play such a critical role because we offer the support system to be able to support the families that need the help at that time. It’s not just “increasing awareness.” We also have the system in place to be able to support the family. I find awareness very difficult because it’s so difficult to quantify.
I gave the example of the young man down the hall. That is one case but how many other thousands, millions of cases out there that we’re not able to capture or quantify? How do you quantify that information and truly know that you’re, A) Not only increasing awareness but B) Have the systems in place to be able to truly take action and to implement that awareness?
In the midst of dealing, managing and leading through this important organization and leading an organization through a difficult time, as all leaders in the sector are with the pandemic, where do you find your strength to continue with the energy you’re sharing with us here? Your strength to continue leading as you’re managing this challenge on a host of fronts.
I got my strength from the families we get the honor to work with. Hearing their stories and what they have to go through, that’s where I got my strength, and knowing that I can play my very small part to try and make a change. I also get my strength from my frontline team. Can you imagine the stress of the families during a global pandemic as if a serious mental illness is not enough, then you throw in COVID-19? For my frontline team to be managing their own personal anxiety and stress around COVID-19, plus working directly with the families.
During COVID, BCSS had an increase of 40% of new families reaching out to our organization. Not only was the team dealing with their own stress but then they also had this huge influx of new families looking for support and looking for advice. That’s where I get my strength from. I also get my strength from people wanting to know more. I’m so grateful that the people now are starting. We still have a long way to go but I’m so grateful. We are starting to turn that needle a little bit. Even people are now using the term mental illness because for a long time. We were trying to be polite.
We didn’t want to say, “Mental illness,” because it was derogatory or it caused pain for the person that you were talking to. We need to say what it is. If it’s an illness, let’s call it what it is. It’s an illness. We are starting to make progress in that area. That also gives me strength, Doug, to know that we are slowly making change and increasing the much needed awareness that we all need to be able to make that change.
With that strength and that energy, what are you most looking forward to in 2022 as you move ahead?
There are so many things I’m looking forward to. I’m looking forward to COVID being done, if that’s such a thing. I’m looking forward to where we, as an organization, can go. There are so many different avenues and things that I would love to. I want to get more into the issues that we were speaking about before those societal impacts. I’m looking at ways that we can try to prevent and look at the link to suicide, to the connection, the strong relationship between cannabis use and the increased risk of psychosis.
I would like to start getting into the homelessness issue and ways that we can continue to work with families around the homelessness issue that we’re all experiencing in the province of British Columbia and continuing to increase that awareness and trying to make change wherever we can. To also build those partnerships because, as the saying goes, “We’re not an island.”There is no advocacy without awareness and action. Click To Tweet
That’s where we need the partnership and the community, whether it be with the government, other communities, nonprofits, to make a change. We have to work together. We cannot make progress working in silos. It’s impossible. That’s where relationships and communication is so essential to be able to start to look at what we need to do around severe and persistent mental illness.
That is very encouraging indeed. If people want to learn more about BCSS or schizophrenia in general, where can we send them? Where could they look to learn more?
The website www.BCSS.org. We also have a podcast. We get into all these issues, real conversations around the difference between mental health and mental illness. In one of our episodes, Doug, we even spoke to a woman who recorded herself in a psychotic state. People are able to check out that podcast. It’s Look Again: Mental Illness Re-Examined. It’s on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
That is the best commercial we’ve had on the show in about 150 episodes. Faydra, thank you so much for sharing the story of the work that you and your colleagues do. On behalf of families managing schizophrenia in their families, thank you for the energy that you brought to this conversation and the work you do every day.
Doug, I appreciate you having me. Thank you.
- BC Schizophrenia Society
- Look Again: Mental Illness Re-Examined
- Apple – Look Again: Mental Illness Re-Examined
- Spotify – Look Again: Mental Illness Re-Examined
About Faydra Aldridge
Faydra’s career has spanned over twenty years in the fields of corporate communications and project management in both the private and public sectors. Before joining the BC Schizophrenia Society (BCSS) as the Chief Executive Officer, Faydra held a leadership role with one of the largest health research institutes in Canada where she oversaw the Stakeholder Relations portfolio. She has experience as a CBC Morning Show Producer and has held executive positions with national and international community health organizations.