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US mental health campaigner shares story

Breaking down stigmas: Guest speaker, Mike Veeny, founder of TransformingStigma.com, at the HRC education session on mental health awareness, held at the Earl Cameron Theatre

Mental health campaigner Mike Veeny has concluded that he loves Bermuda and wants very much to come here again, an audience heard last night in City Hall.

“I’m mentally ill, so you might not want me,” added Mr Veeny, with the characteristic humour that inflects his presentations.

A professional drummer and speaker on mental health issues, Mr Veeny was brought by the Bermuda Mental Health Foundation to share his own story and, above all, initiate conversations.

His trip has included a visit to the Mid-Atlantic Wellness Institute and to the Island’s pilot mental health courts, as well as a meeting with Jeanne Atherden, the Minister of Health.

“There are a lot of initiatives that are moving forward here with regard to mental health, such as the people who are trying to change Bermuda’s Mental Health Act,” Mr Veeny said.

With strenuous advocacy under way by the Foundation, and the Human Rights Commission continuing to push for the inclusion of mental illness in the Human Rights Act, the New York-based speaker urged Bermudians to move forward.

Noting the Island’s appetite for tourism, he said: “What if you became a country that was known not only for tourism, but for wellness?”

Breaking down the stigmas, prejudices, discrimination and shame associated with mental illness is Mr Veeny’s mission.

“Here in Bermuda, it’s taboo to talk about this stuff — but I know that one in four people in this room struggle with mental health, and that’s just the people that admit it.”

Emerging from a harrowing childhood and adolescence marked by expulsions from school and periods of institutionalisation, Mr Veeny said he had learnt to “embrace the confusion” — and saw firsthand the positive results of speaking openly about challenges that were far from his alone to bear.

Opting to spend an entire year introducing himself as mentally ill to everyone he met, Mr Veeny’s transformative encounters included a chance meeting with his neighbour, an imposing professional bodybuilder, as well as a Hollywood director and the head of a major beverage company — all of whom had struggled with the pain and fear of mental health issues, and who found solace in opening up.

“You have to have the uncomfortable conversation,” he said, urging people to take care of themselves, keep the topic in conversation, and “look for teachable moments to help others”.