Jessica Van’t-Haaff (left) and her mom Christena. (Submitted)

A leap of faith to help end stigma

Naked Bungy Jump in Nanaimo helping support people with mental illness

Christena Van’t-Haaff died in 2017 after trying for years to cope with a mental illness, mostly on her own.

Her daughter Jessica says her mom didn’t have to suffer alone, but like many other people living with a mental illness, getting past the stigma that others — or even oneself — place on this kind of injury, is very hard.

Jessica and her mom used to live in Sidney and had moved from the community a few years ago. Christena was diagnosed as bipolar around eight years ago and Jessica said that as a child, she didn’t really understand what was going on in her family. To her, her mother’s behaviours were a normal part of her family.

“We didn’t know what was going on,” she says.

The diagnosis, while the family eventually came to know about it, was hard for her mom, Jessica says. She says it would often prevent Christena from going out, but when she did, she wore a figurative mask. Her friends and the people around her just didn’t know what her mother was going through.

“She hid in the shadows. She was deeply troubled … and she didn’t show it … people just didn’t know.”

Christena Van’t-Haaff took her own life last year, despite her daughter, and her family, trying to help at various times since her diagnosis.

Jessica, who is now a nurse working with the Victoria branch of the BC Schizophrenia Society, is sharing her story in the hope that it will help break down the barriers that stigma can place against people and their families who are looking for help with a mental illness.

Jessica is also shedding some barriers of her own – figuratively and literally. She is taking part in this year’s Naked Bungy Jump for BCSS, Feb. 17 and 18 at WildPlay Nanaimo. Participants doff their clothes in a symbolic gesture about shedding stigma and take a leap from a 150-foot bridge over the Nanaimo River. The jump regularly fills up and this year it’s expected some 200 people will take part and raise money for the BCSS. Since the Naked Bungy Jump started 12 years ago, 1,790 adults have taken the leap and helped raise more than $188,000. BCSS uses the funds — this year’s amount will be matched by an anonymous donor, Jessica says — to help thousands of people and their families who need live-saving support and information on how to overcome and stop stigma about mental health.

Jessica says that in her own experience, her family didn’t want it out in the open, fearing what other people might think. She says that attitude prevented them — and her mom — from getting the support they needed. As a result, her mom went through many ups and downs, stopping her medication, starting again, thinking she could handle it.

“We need to stop the idea that (mental illness) is a disability. Many people can still have lives. In many cases, it can be helped, like any other kind of injury.”

She says as a nurse, she has seen the clinical side of mental illness and now, working with the non-profit BCSS, she is working with people and their families, gaining insight into how they are or are not coping with the diagnosis of a mental illness. Jessica says it’s the goal of the BCSS and the annual Naked Bungy Jump, to raise awareness about mental health, and the amount of resources and people who are out there willing to help.

“I think my mom set recovery standards that were just too high to reach,” she says. “Behind closed doors, my mom was struggling to get to those unattainable goals.”

Jessica encourages people and their loved ones to be honest with each other and try to take care of each other.

“A diagnosis, medications, a life’s changes … they are all a part of the journey.”

The annual Naked Bungy Jump is still accepting entries. If you pledge $200 or more, you can jump for free. To go that route, visit bcssvictoria.ca. People can also sign up to jump on the day of the event (for a fee) at www.wildplay.com/nakedbungy.

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