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Rising Stars: Meet Andrea Paquette

Today we’d like to introduce you to Andrea Paquette.

Hi Andrea, so excited to have you with us today. What can you tell us about your story?
My name is Andrea and I am President and originally founded a Charity – Bipolar Disorder Society in 2010, which led to renaming and co-founding the Stigma-Free Society in 2016 along with Dave Richardson.

I created a bright pink t-shirt in 2009 with the words “Bipolar Babe” on the front, which led to a movement to stomp out stigmas that allow negative attitudes and perceptions of people with differences to persist.

I made the t-shirt nearly a decade ago to overcome feelings of shame related to my diagnosis of bipolar disorder in 2005. The move was part of an empowerment strategy that I devised after recovering from a suicide attempt. More than helping myself, the t-shirt became the impetus to start the Bipolar Disorder Society of BC and now the renamed Stigma-Free Society, a not-for-profit charitable organization in Canada dedicated to spreading acceptance, understanding, and empathy and stomping out the stigmas related to mental illness, physical and developmental disabilities, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression, and religion.

My mission gained traction in 2009 as many people were not talking about mental illness. Since launching the charity with the help of dedicated partners, I have told my story to more than 50,000 youth in high schools in British Columbia and even more in the community. I contributed a chapter to the book Hidden Lives: Coming Out on Mental Illness (2012), and I am working on a book about my experience and my mission to spread the words that no matter what our challenges, we can all live extraordinary lives.

I coined this message and it motivates me to continue the work of the Stigma-Free Society by delivering our impacting programs.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall, and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
My most significant challenges lie before I founded the Charity in 2010. My passion was to share my story so others didn’t have to suffer in silence as I did. People connect with personal stories; it’s what moves them in their hearts. Hearing about a person facing extraordinary things helps others relate to the issue. It makes us feel more human to be with another human being who has suffered or is dealing with some kind of challenge.

I hit the deepest, darkest depression of my entire life years before creating the Charity. I couldn’t grocery shop for myself because it felt too overwhelming to even step into the store. Even cooking something easy felt like building a house. I couldn’t even shower; it felt like climbing Mount Everest. It was horrible.

I’m very candid about what happened. I medicated myself with sleep for two weeks, day and night, because I didn’t want to see the sun. And then I attempted suicide, which landed me in the intensive care unit for three days. I luckily survived.

It can be traumatic to hear about my attempt, I say we need to talk about suicide because we don’t talk about it enough. It’s quite taboo still in this society. I didn’t reach out for help; I didn’t talk to my family; I didn’t reach out to my friends, my doctor, and community resources. I wasn’t alone but I felt very alone.

I now get to carry the message that we need to remember there is always help and there is always hope. That is my most significant accomplishment.

Thank you so much for sharing that Andrea– so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
Since 2010, the Stigma-Free Society is a registered Canadian charity committed to combating the stigma of all kinds with a focus on mental health. The Charity’s Vision and Mission foster programs that cultivate, encourage, and educate diverse communities to be inclusive and compassionate through awareness and understanding via education, support, and leadership.

Our work is gaining national momentum with its transforming service delivery model and our hope is to reach international heights in the coming years. The Stigma-Free Society is committed to the promotion of mental wellness and the elimination of stigma that so often surrounds mental illness, developmental disabilities, and other challenging personal circumstances. Our Society helps people achieve personal empowerment by providing peer support training for youth and adults and raising awareness through education in schools and the community.

The Society’s goal is to create AWARENESS of the various stigmas that exist in the world, develop an UNDERSTANDING of the challenges that numerous people face, and encourage all people to foster ACCEPTANCE of themselves and others. The overview of the Stigma-Free Society includes its Programs such as virtual Youth Mental Health Toolkits that have assisted educators, school counselors, parents and guardians, and youth alike, to reach out for help with their mental health concerns.

So maybe we end on discussing what matters most to you and why?
I look at my life now, and I’m very happy. I have a very blessed life, pets, family, people who love me, job and opportunities, travel. I never thought having a mental illness, I’d be able to have all this.

People often think that when you have a mental illness that you are a lost cause, but you can lead a very, very full life. I never let bipolar disorder stop me. We all deserve happiness.

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