Behind the Scenes: mental health services advocate Dyan Dunsmoor-Farley

Jane Reddington

Sounder Staff

Tuesday, May 3 2016

A magnet on Dyan Dunsmoor-Farley’s file cabinet reads, “We cannot direct the winds but we can adjust our sails.” It seems fitting because Dyan cares deeply about mental health services on our island and knows from personal experience the toll mental illness can take on our lives.

Dyan came to Gabriola with her husband in 2002, bought a retirement property at the south end and left her house in Victoria for what she thought would be a quieter existence here. For years, Dyan worked with the Provincial Government as Assistant Deputy Minister in several ministries, including the Ministry of Women’s Equality, the Ministry of Health Services, and the Ministry for Children and Families. 

During her time with the government she was exposed to many issues of mental health, and when retirement became tedious after six months, she started her own consulting company, Wave Consulting, which she is now turning over to a younger generation of women whom she also mentors, all while she works on her PhD. 

This woman is a force to be reckoned with and her office is lined with diplomas and books—you can see at once she is an academic, but she is also a mother of three grown daughters who has given back to our island as a volunteer in a big way. The hours she’s put into improving mental health services on the island for the last four years have constituted a half-time job.

After volunteering on the island with GaLTT, she helped form the Sustainable Gabriola Network. There she stumbled upon the problem of suicide on this island and became focused on the unusually high suicide rate. “It was a shock to me to realize we had a much higher prevalence of suicide than the rest of the province and the rest of the Gulf Islands. So it was a Gabriola issue.”

Dyan Dunsmoor-Farley with her six-month old springer spaniel Walter. Jane Reddington photo

Dyan, who is 66 years old, knew she could do something to help. With her connections from her work at the provincial government level, she set out to correct the balance in how people access services on the island for their mental health, and galvanized the right partners into action. Dyan approached Island Health, and did a needs assessment herself and realized people were falling through the cracks. 

“Typically, the First Responders were called when a person had a mental health crisis.” She says the only option was to take them to NRGH emergency. Unless they were a significant risk to themselves or others, they were released, often the same day, and sometimes just after the last ferry had left for the night.

Dyan knew that people who were drawn to the island’s beauty, often found themselves isolated and when they experienced mental health issues the services weren’t there to support them. In the four and a half years since Dyan started working on the issue, Gabriola has gained an assigned mental health nurse at the clinic, a social worker, a dedicated psychiatrist and a geriatric psychiatrist.

This has all come as a result of the Mental Health and Substance Use Local Action Team that Dyan helped start in 2013. There are monthly meetings with the doctors, the PHC and First Responders all in an effort to improve how Gabriola residents access mental health services.

The Local Action Team helped create a new model of care for islanders with Island Health that means a whole different way of doing assessments that are community based and focused on continuity of care. Dyan has now stepped down as the Chair of the Action Team but feels the right elements are in place to give Gabriola the mental health support network it needs.

But for Dyan, as much as she cares about mental health services for islanders, the issue is more personal. For 20 years, she has suffered with a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), something she has kept private until now. 

“I have PTS, but I don’t have the disorder,” she says. “I survived childhood trauma that impacted the rest of my life. So I’m a high-functioning happy person but when the symptoms kick I become overwhelmed with despair. I was aware I was not well and sought help.”

Dyan says since 2015 she has worked to come to terms with her PTS. Part of her brain goes into the flight or fight mechanism and she has been trained to override that part of her brain by seeing a counsellor, talking to her doctor and learning new tools to help herself cope.

It’s not easy. Walter, Dyan’s six-month old Springer spaniel bounds into the room returning from his walk. He’s full of kisses and eager for attention. Dyan is close to tears a few times. “It takes a few people coming forward like this. I’m pretty sure that people reading this will say, seriously? Dyan has this? But she’s so happy.” Dyan is thankful she sought help. She says talking with her daughter helps, as does having a great doctor and supportive family. A few cuddles with Walter go a long way too.

Dyan wants to open a dialogue on how we can help people before they’re in crisis. 

“If we talked about our mental health openly, as though it was as normal as breathing, we’d create an environment where people wouldn’t have to struggle alone. Mental illness happens to us all in some form. People have a right to high-quality, locally accessible services. I’m heartened to have these discussions because they open up the possibility of doing better . . . and we are”

Putting the supports in place and educating the public are big pieces of the puzzle. 

“Let’s be open to the possibility that when things go off the rails we need to get them back on the rails. All of us know someone who has suffered with some mental health or substance use issues. We are all on a continuum from being very well to very ill. Stigma and discrimination are words in a box. We need to talk about “being” and all the things that happen in our lives.”

Behind the Scenes is an ongoing Sounder series, looking at individual volunteers on Gabriola who are making a difference on the island. To nominate someone for a Behind the Scenes profile, please email jane@soundernews.com