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Mother of child with substance use issues shares journey in new animated video series

Shirley Chan is one of three family members brought together by BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services to share narratives and wisdom as loved ones of people with mental health complexities and substance use issues.
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Shirley Chan worries for her daughter, Emma, every day. A bright and sensitive child, Emma always tried to rescue the underdogs – from standing up for kids being bullied at school, to bringing home a rabbit that liked to bite. She loved singing and acting.

For the past 12 years, Emma has also had a mental illness and substance use disorder.

Chan_image.jpg"She was living on the steps of the Carnegie during the day, and in the smallest tent in Oppenheimer during the night," says Chan, pictured at right. "Taking substances is her way of coping with her mental illness. You never stop worrying about your child, especially when there's substance use involved. It's terrifying."

Chan says Emma's friends and other family members, as well as society, have left her behind – believing she's the architect of her fate. Emma has learned to trust her mom, and her Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team.

"We need to grab the dragon of stigma by the horns and wrestle it, because it has done so much harm," says Chan. "People with mental health and substance use issues have an illness. If someone has another brain illness like Alzheimer's or a physical illness, we don't blame them or abandon them."

"As a society, we need to be kinder, and step in and change the system. These are people, and they matter." – Shirley Chan

Advocating for those who need help, but are neglected due to stigma, is Shirley's mission. It's also why she got involved with a new video series from BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services.

New animated videos feature family members

This three-part animated video series will bring you along on a journey into the stories of family members of people with lived and living experience of mental health complexities, substance use issues and criminalization. It explores the roles that families play and how stigma has impacted them, how they have navigated trust and identity, and their insights and hopes for the health care system.

Three family members, including Shirley, were brought together by BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services to share their narratives and wisdom as caregivers and loved ones. Through open-dialogue discussions, guided by words of hope and encouragement from peers of similar experience, the storytellers were asked questions about stigma or discriminations experienced as families assisting their loved one to navigate complex systems, as well as questions about their personal healing journey.

Led by the Patient Experience and Community Engagement Team at BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services, these videos are a part of the "Understanding Each Other Together (UNITE)" project: a journey into our experiences of stigma to celebrate diversity and create change. The videos were created in collaboration with a project team of student designers, faculty, and staff from the Emily Carr University Health Design Lab.

Roles We Play


Redefining Trust and Identity


Navigating the Health Care System


Let the love be what matters most

The highest hope of the UNITE project is to disrupt stigma, demystify mental health and substance use, and highlight the positive role that health care providers can play in the road towards wellness. By sharing their stories, it creates space for more stories, dialogue and healing – together as a community.

Chan says the Patient Experience and Community Engagement Team and Health Design Lab at Emily Carr University took something that is painful and challenging to discuss, and transformed it into something creative and moving.

"We have different, yet similar, experiences. We get blamed for our family member's illness. People say to us: 'You must have made your daughter that way, or you weren't nice enough to your sibling.' You shake your head, because it's so unbelievable," says Chan.

"You manage to cope, you learn to accept, and let the love be what matters most." – Shirley Chan

Although she still feels helpless and hopeless at times, Chan will always be there for Emma – her bright and sensitive little girl, who still dreams about having a place of her own and a career.

"I always say that my daughter's gift to me has been that she's made me a better person – kinder, more empathetic and compassionate. It's been a really hard time, but I've had to grow as a person to be able to meet her where she is."

Chan is president of Pathways Serious Mental Illness Society.

Learn more about International Overdose Awareness Day (August 31).

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