Author of The Book of Negroes Lawrence Hill says its time to lose the shame about mental illness

It’s time society “lost the shame” associated with mental illness, says one of Canada’s leading authors.

Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes and other acclaimed works, was in London Friday to speak at Huron University College and to mental health experts and donors at a private fundraiser for London Health Sciences Foundation.

When it comes to mental illness, Hill has a lifetime of experience. He lived with it, first with his bipolar mother, Donna, then his late sister, Karen, who suffered from the same ailment for more than 20 years, all the while working on her one and only book, a novel, Cafe Babanussa, that Hill is currently promoting.

“Let’s just lose the shame about mental illness,” said Hill in a telephone interview.

“If somebody breaks a knee cap, we don’t pretend there isn’t a problem. If you scratch the surface of any family, you’re going to find someone living with mental illness.”

Karen Hill died in 2014 after choking on food before finding a publisher for her book, based on her life after moving to West Berlin in her early 20s, the story of a mixed race woman who speaks several languages and in the 1980s is enjoying life, museums, art galleries and learning about European politics when she is stricken with bipolar disorder.

Hill’s sister spent more than 20 years writing and rewriting the book between bouts with the illness that was often debilitating, forcing her in and out of hospitals and on a constant diet of drugs that stifled her creativity and eventually forced her to quit working.

After her death, Hill took up the cause and found a publisher, Harper Collins.

“I’m also going to talk about creativity and mental illness,” said Hill. “I want to talk about how hard it was for her to keep coming back to that book, her courage and determination, her courage, that she lived a rich and varied life, a complex and interesting life.”

Hill described his sister as a “kindred spirit” and felt compelled to keep trying to get her book published.

“I felt she’d written a unique story about a young black woman, a very unusual, fresh novel that I thought was also very courageous and unique,” said Hill. “I felt that I should honour that and continue that search.”

Apart from The Book of Negroes, Hill is also acclaimed for his 2001 memoir, Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada, and his 2013 Massey Lectures, Blood: The Stuff of Life.

He and his sister are siblings of award winning singer-songwriter and author Dan Hill.

They are the children of American immigrants, his black father — Daniel G. Hill, a renowned sociologist, civil servant, and human rights specialist, and Black Canadian historian who became the first full-time director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission and, later, commissioner —and white mother, Donna.

Hill said “one of the greatest challenges” of families dealing with mental illness is to provide “support, not just when someone is in crisis.

“What about when they are released from hospital and still barely able to hold it together?” he said.

Poverty, access to therapy, lack of supports all contribute to making life near impossible for people with mental illness to survive, he said.

“With Karen, every time she tried to get better, she’d break down again because of social stresses,” said Hill.

“We helped her and she had a wide circle of friends,” said Hill.

“But we, society, need to find more ways to support people in the community in which they live. Some of these people don’t have family, or they have family who live on the other side of the country. It’s not always easy to find people you can rely on, to check in on you, make sure you’re eating and taking your medication, taking you out.”

“I think we can try harder. It’s something for all of us to talk about.”

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