In a gesture to honour his late father who battled depression throughout his life, University of Regina alumnus Jim Demeray established UnderstandUs. The volunteer organization raises awareness and works to remove stigmas associated with those living with mental health challenges.
It all began with an armload of T-shirts.
Jim Demeray DipBA'06 wanted to honour the memory of his father, who had passed away from a heart attack in 2011. His father had lived with depression his whole life, but never acknowledged it. Demeray himself lives with generalized anxiety. This is why it made sense to him to raise funds for the Canadian Mental Health Association. Demeray designed T-shirts emblazoned with “UnderstandUs” and took them to work to sell for the cause.
“When I was walking into work holding the shirts, I was saying to myself, ‘There is no way people are going to buy a T-shirt that is about mental illness. There is no way. I’m going to have to give these away,’ ” he says. However, by the end of the first shift, he had almost sold out. “The support was so huge. At that moment, I realized that I was on to something, that my perception that people don’t want to talk about this and don’t want to support it was incorrect.” Demeray used the money raised to start UnderstandUs, a not-for-profit organization that aims to change the conversation about mental health.
Demeray feels that UnderstandUs is a natural name for the organization. “I’ve played in bands before and sat around a table with my bandmates and came up with 85 names of a band, trying to get down to one. But the funny thing about this organization is that UnderstandUs was the first name I came up with,” he says. “A lot of times with mental illness, people believe that what someone is looking for is sympathy, but at the end of the day, understanding is a tool that anyone can use, and that’s what they’re looking for. The word ‘us’ was specifically around the fact that there’s a community of people that deal with this. It’s not ‘understand me’; it’s not ‘understand you, him or her’. It’s ‘understand us’ because there’s a lot of us, and that understanding goes a long way.”
Ultimately, what UnderstandUs is about is conversation. When he first started the organization, Demeray noticed that people were scared to talk about mental illness and felt all alone in dealing with it. He also noticed that there were misconceptions around mental health disorders. Google Images searches for anxiety and depression call up dark and negative imagery. Many people believe that if you’re not debilitated or in the hospital, you don’t suffer from mental illness. These ideas didn’t mesh with Demeray’s own experience, so he started telling his story to anyone who would listen.
"I refuse to allow the mental health chair to remain empty at the table; I will fill it and give it a voice. I will make this pain visible, make vulnerability the pathway to beauty, celebrate the imperfect and be fearless in the fight for human understanding. My question is … will you do the same?”
“When I was open with people about it, there were distinct reactions I received that made me realize that how we perceive mental illness is incorrect and is potentially damaging,” he says. Some people dismissed him with comments such as, “Life is too short to stress out all the time. You should just be happy.” Or, they would say, “I know people with real problems, and you’re just playing the victim.” Others were surprised because they had known him for a long time and had no idea he dealt with anxiety. There was another group of people who expressed gratitude to him for his openness because they were dealing with anxiety, too.
“All those things combined made me realize that there’s so many things wrong with how I was dealing with it and how we as a society deal with it. I should have felt comfortable talking about how I truly feel, so it didn’t come as a surprise. People shouldn’t have to pull me aside to thank me for talking about mental illness if they deal with it because they should already feel comfortable talking about it. People shouldn’t shut people down or be resistant because it’s a real thing that needs understanding, not resistance,” he says. “At that moment, I realized that I needed to do my part, whatever my part could be, to change those perceptions.”
The T-shirt sales led Demeray to establish a website with resources to help people with mental health issues. He was going to stop there, until someone asked if they could share their story on the site. The story received positive feedback, and he realized that the site could be a safe place for people to share their struggles and triumphs.
Laura Hudson’s article on understandus.ca is called, 3 times my mental illness changed my life (for the better). She writes:
The best way I can describe my depression on my worst day is an inability to cope; a lack of resources – being thrown into a gladiator fight wielding a spoon. In those moments I look out and see my friends and the rest of the world with their suits of armour and swords parkouring their way through life as I watch from the corner, back against the wall, spoon clutched tight to my chest. It’s a feeling of being unequipped. Like going scuba diving armed with a snorkel mask; the frantic treading of water, one arm flung over the side of the boat, choking back water as everyone else gracefully swims below, air tanks attached securely to their backs. But would you believe me if I told you that even after all of that, and knowing that for the rest of my life there are going to be many more days clinging to the side of that boat, that I wouldn’t trade it for the world?
Hudson met Demeray when he gave a presentation to her business administration marketing class at the University of Regina. When students had to choose an organization to give marketing and strategic support to as their major project for the semester, Hudson’s group picked UnderstandUs.
After learning more about the organization through the class project, Hudson was inspired to share her story on the site. “It was terrifying when I sent it off to Jim. I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t realize how many people it was going to touch. There was such an outpouring of love and gratitude. It hit home how much we’re all affected by this,” she says.
Hudson agrees with Demeray that mental illness should not be a source of shame. “There’s another side to look at when it comes to mental illness. There’s this stigma of it being a sign of weakness. But the truth is just the opposite. Some of the strongest, most compassionate, successful and self-aware people I know are living with a mental illness. The conversation needs to be flipped on its head. Instead of saying ‘I’m sorry you have to live with this,’ we need to be saying ‘Wow, you are so resilient for dealing with this every day and I respect your strength for showing up.’ Only then will people start talking and stigmas be lifted,” she says.
The website’s success led to requests for Demeray to visit elementary and high schools. “Teachers and educators don’t have an active mental health curriculum. A lot of kids are suffering at an early age and don’t really have any format of discussion about it. We felt we could be leaders in the education system and with youth in sparking a conversation,” Demeray says. He notes that youth suicide is the second largest cause of death among young Canadians and that Saskatchewan has the highest rate of youth suicide in the country. The conversation he sparks with young people emphasizes that it’s normal to deal with the emotions of mental illness, and there are healthy outlets to combat it at an early age that will allow youth to remain on a positive path and be successful in life.
“I would love to be the biggest voice for mental health awareness in the country someday, but we want to really master what we do, so we are focused on Regina and surrounding areas,” he says.
In his presentations, Demeray focuses on four main areas: self-love, healthy relationships, physical health and self-regulation. “If they focus on these four things, they can improve their mental health, proactively or reactively,” he says. Part of the reason he feels it’s so important to focus on young people is that he wishes someone would have talked to him about mental wellness at a young age. He believes that if negative thoughts, uncontrolled emotions and debilitating stress are not acknowledged early and countered with healthy options unhealthy habits will take over.
“I think that in adolescent years, people are susceptible to negative emotions, and they’re also susceptible to pressure to go down the path of unhealthy outlets – drugs, alcohol, addictions, isolation and anger. I think if that discussion is left vacant, or it’s done by people that the youth can’t relate to, then we’re missing the opportunity where we can better the lives of all youth. I don’t want to see the consequences of us not doing it,” he says.
The class presentations triggered online campaigns. The first was Vulnerable Is Beautiful, where students shared their vulnerabilities on video. “We got the kids involved as leaders. If they’re vulnerable, it will cause people to see them being vulnerable without judgement, and they’ll learn they can be vulnerable and not receive judgement,” he says. One of the most recent campaigns, Letters to No One, focused on random acts of kindness. It was wildly successful, reaching more than 20,000 people on social media.
UnderstandUs also does outreach in the community, with volunteers selling T-shirts and starting conversations about mental health at events such as the Regina Folk Festival, Bazaart and the Queen City Marathon.
Branding plays an important role in how UnderstandUs raises awareness. Rather than starting with the cause and creating merchandise based on it, Demeray started with the brand and advanced the cause that way. He focused on making professional-looking designs for T-shirts and campaigns that would connect with people. “Once they liked the shirt and said, ‘Hey, that’s a really cool shirt – what is that about?’ someone would say that it’s about mental health. I think it’s a great way to talk about something like mental illness and make it comfortable first,” he says.
On top of the marketing skills he learned at University, Demeray’s diploma in business administration has been key to the organization’s success by providing him with a large network of professionals to draw upon. “The people I met in university are now out in the world owning and running businesses. They can offer services for us – like creating websites and videos for free – and the relationships I built with them have allowed that to happen,” he says.
Given that UnderstandUs is fully volunteer-run and operates on $28,000 per year, raised through merchandise sales and donations, those networks have been invaluable. Because of its strong brand and high-quality materials, many people assume UnderstandUs is part of a large organization, a branch of a national or international cause. “Although we are looked at like we have a lot of money to do what we do, we just don’t. Without the generous support of our volunteers and the people that offer their skills for our organization, we wouldn’t be where we are.” Demeray says.
Demeray himself is a volunteer for UnderstandUs. While working a full-time day job as the general manager of Alair Homes, he runs the not-for-profit in his spare time. “It’s something I’m passionate about, and I’ve never felt that it’s a burden. This is fun for me, to create images and campaigns, to film with kids and to talk about mental health with the youth. I would want to do this with my time anyway,” he says.
Given the organization’s success locally, there has been a lot of pressure on UnderstandUs to expand. “I would love to be the biggest voice for mental health awareness in the country someday, but we want to really master what we do, so we are focused on Regina and surrounding areas,” he says. The website allows the organization to have a global reach, however, with people from around the world participating in campaigns.
Demeray’s team is currently working on UnderstandUs University, which will provide access to presentation materials that can be used in classrooms and businesses for mental health education.
In his own testimonial on the UnderstandUs website, Demeray writes, “I believe too many humans live with ‘invisible pain’ and we refuse to see it, hear it or acknowledge it. I refuse to allow the mental health chair at the table remain empty; I will fill it and give it a voice. I will make this pain visible, make vulnerability the pathway to beauty, celebrate the imperfect and be fearless in the fight for human understanding. My question is … will you do the same?”
For more on UnderstandUs, visit understandus.ca.