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Mental Health advocate speaks at Sask Abilities conference

Keynote speaker says vulnerability equals strength.

YORKTON—On Oct. 5, Sask Abilities hosted their first Mental Health Conference at the Gallagher Centre.

"We're very excited to have our first—which we're hoping to be annual—Mental Health Conference," said Aleks Hoeber, Regional Director with Sask Abilities.

"For a long time we've been planning on bringing together individuals who experience mental illness or be able to have the conversation around mental health as well as to start to reduce the stigma in our communities as well as in our businesses of work," said Hoeber.

Hoeber said that tickets for the event, which featured several guest speakers and activities, sold out within six weeks of it being announced.

"There is 140 people here today who have come to listen to a variety of speakers who have great knowledge and vast experience in the mental health field," said Hoeber, adding, "I believe the reason we sold out is that everyone in that room is impacted by mental illness or addictions in one way or another—so whether it's through people's professional lives or personal lives or both."

"I think everyone is here today wanting to learn how can they help and how can they take care of themselves as well as those they love and those around them," said Hoeber.

Hoeber said the event was made possible by several sponsors including the Good Spirit and Christ the Teacher school divisions as well as Hearns Pharmacy and the The Elias Giannoulis Memorial Hockey Tournament for Mental Health.

"We were able to bring in some really wonderful speakers...that we were able to have here due to the sponsorship that we received."

Of those speakers was Allan Kehler, the Opening Keynote Speaker for the event.

"What was cool for me—what stood out—was that they actually sold out in six weeks," said Kehler of the event, adding, "for me, my takeaway was that, 'wow, we are totally moving the right direction.'"

"Five years ago—I've been speaking for about 13 years—there's no way that something that had words like 'mental health' in the title would have drawn that many people in," said Kehler.

Kehler is an author and mental health advocate who struggled with addiction and mental health.

"I was a functioning addict—I was hammered with all the labels with mental illness and then I struggled with addiction for a long time—I kind of got to that one pivotal place where I realized if I didn't do something different I wasn't going to be around much longer," said Kehler.

"A doctor had actually given me a month to live if I didn't change what I was doing and I realized pretty quickly that I had to understand how to be vulnerable, I had to understand how to ask for help and how to put a voice to my pain," said Kehler.

Kehler said that being given an expiration date on his life was the turning point for him.

"I started to use my experiences to not only help myself but also once I started speaking in jails and treatment centres and schools and [for companies] I realized there's so many other people who have the same challenges and that technically we're only alone when we choose to be alone," said Kehler.

"The keynote title this morning was 'Mental Health: Finding Your Voice' and I think that—especially for ourselves as men—that's something that we struggle with, we fear the potential repercussions the stigma, the shame," said Kehler, adding, "the two key things that we focused on today was empowering people to use their voice in times of need and talking about how to create a safe space where other people feel comfortable putting a voice to what it is they need."

"When I was given a month to live I was teaching at a junior high school in Edmonton," said Kehler, adding, "what is unique about that was there honestly wasn't a single person who knew— because I hid behind that proverbial mask—it speaks to how many people really suffer in silence."

Kehler said that a city the size of Yorkton has its benefits.

"Yorkton is small—it's connection in realizing 'wow, we're not alone – here are the supports'—and that's what I've seen today – that conversation really accelerating."

"Yorkton—to me, it's a city—but it's a small town," said Kehler, noting he grew up in small town Saskatchewan.

"For me, from where I came from, it's just hopefully empowering people to have those conversations and understand that vulnerability equals strength."