Bi-polar princess and courageous mental health advocate Victoria Maxwell

In partnership with Crest.BD, Victoria Maxwell uses her love of theatre to raise mental health awareness.

Victoria Maxwell is an award-winning actress who has worked with famous leading men like Johnny Depp, David Duchovny, and John Travolta. She's a mental health educator and playwright with over two decades of experience.

Maxwell is also mentally ill.

After being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, anxiety, and psychosis, Maxwell became active in the promotion of mental health awareness and addressing stigma. During the past decade, she has combined her theatre background, professional knowledge, and personal experiences with mental illness to offer a unique perspective on the lived experience of mental illness.

Her critically acclaimed one-woman shows "Crazy for Life" and "Funny… You Don’t Look Crazy," debuted to sold-out audiences in England, New Zealand, the United States and Canada. Irreverently funny and charismatic, Maxwell infuses each of her performances with important messages about mental health awareness interspersed with her personal history.

Maxwell is the creative director of Crazy for Life Co., a company that aims to educate health care professionals about mental illness and workplace wellness. She also presents customized workshops for conferences, in-house training, and a range of services for individuals and families, colleges and universities, and corporations. Her latest project is a one-woman show being developed in collaboration with Crest.BD.

Crest.BD is a collaborative research team studying the psychosocial issues in bipolar disorder. Current research includes the impact of recovery narratives in bipolar illness, attitudes towards the police, and the impact of bipolar disorder on employment experiences. A central tenant of Crest.BD is fostering and promoting community based research for individuals with bipolar disorder and their family members. Crest.BD organizes a number of free events open to the public throughout the greater Vancouver area.

I recently attended a community engagement night organized by Crest.BD and was fortunate enough to sit down with Victoria Maxwell. Taken with her vivacious energy and charisma, her passion for raising mental health awareness was immediately apparent.

When asked how she became involved in mental health advocacy, Maxwell recounted her initial struggle in accepting her diagnosis. After being diagnosed in 1992, she “didn’t know what bipolar disorder was." She described her concerns about taking medication and the fear that her personality would be pathologized. She had difficulty accepting her diagnosis due to the lack of knowledge available.

One of the biggest barriers to treatment people with mental illness face, she said, is this lack of open dialogue and discussion. “I wanted to see more discussion to prevent suffering and stigma [in mental illness]," Maxwell said.

Stigma, and particularly self-stigma, is one of the biggest barriers to treatment for mental illness. Realizing that open dialogue was one of the most effective ways to disarm the prejudices associated with mental illness, she became a mental health educator and an advocate for mental health awareness. “It is important to be creative, to share stories and to listen," she said.

This direct contact can only be achieved through individuals speaking out about mental health and illness, however, she cautioned that this disclosure should be appropriate to the situation. “The onus is on us [people with a mental illness] to stand up and be counted,” Maxwell said. “I think if all of us do, then we will be stronger for it”.

When asked whether she had any suggestions for people living with a mental illness, Maxwell offered some powerful advice. “Be as compassionate towards yourself as you can. Reach out for help, and if you don’t get it, reach out again until you find someone who cares. There is help and it does get better.”

Mental illness affects an estimated one in five Canadians throughout their lifetime, the Public Health Agency states. Societal impacts of mental illness are pervasive, impacting individuals, their families, health care systems and the community at large. Research has shown that the estimated economic annual cost of mental illness in Canada is $14.4 billion. According to the World Health Organization, mental illness is the leading cause of disability in Canada.

Fortunately, there is help available for individuals with mental illness. Thanks to people like Victoria Maxwell, who has the courage to stand up and be counted, mental health awareness is being pushed to the forefront of Canadian consciousness.

Victoria Maxwell’s play will debut in May, and is open to mental health professionals and to individuals with a mental illness and their families. For more information about Maxwell, visit her website and her blog at Psychology Today.

For more information about research, team members, and knowledge exchange activities conducted by Crest.BD, visit www.crestbd.ca.

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