Alum advocates for mental health awareness – TRU Newsroom

Alum advocates for mental health awareness – TRU Newsroom

April 29, 2024 at 11:44 am  Education, Kamloops, News

TRU alum Liz Wood (BCom ’19)

Hope. Perseverance. Self-forgiveness. These are key messages TRU alum Liz Wood (BCom ’19) wants to impart to anyone struggling with their mental health.

For nearly two decades, Wood hid her mental illness from the world as she climbed the corporate ladder. She’s not hiding anymore.

“I think we’ve been trained and taught over the years that mental illness precludes you from achieving. I’m living proof that you can struggle every day of your life and still be happy, and still achieve what you want to achieve,” says Wood. “You can have days where you can’t get out of bed, and still be a C-suite executive. They’re not mutually exclusive.”

Wood is the vice-president and chief compliance officer for CMI Financial Group Inc. (CMI), a financial services company where she manages the day-to-day operations of more than 140 staff and consultants.  She was named the 2021 Canadian Mortgage Awards Woman of Distinction and a Woman of Influence by the Canadian Mortgage Professionals in 2022.  In 2023, the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business recognized her among the country’s top 50 executives.

She has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from Athabasca University, a Bachelor of Commerce in accounting and business management from TRU and an MBA from Laurentian University.

Intelligent, empathetic and tenacious, she holds many roles. She is a boss, a colleague, a teacher, a volunteer, a wife, a caregiver, a friend and a champion of animal welfare — and she does it all while rarely leaving her home.

Open learning integral to education

Liz Wood with her dog, Molly.

Wood has agoraphobia, a mental illness that makes being away from home extremely difficult. She has also been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, illness anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. The common thread through all the diagnoses is anxiety, which became evident when Wood had her first panic attack as a pre-teen. By 19, she had dropped out of high school and her world had shrunk to just her house.

At the time, there was minimal mental-health support available from the safety of her home, so Wood soldiered on as best she could. Determined to continue her education, she was grateful to find a university that had full degree programs available remotely — 16 years ago, distance learning options were hard to find.

“I started pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in psychology because I thought I could help people. But the challenge for me was how to balance my own mental-health issues with helping others through theirs. And I really didn’t feel like I could,” she says.

And so, she transferred to TRU to pursue a BCom, choosing TRU specifically because of its open learning options and supportive access for students with disabilities. She credits supportive staff, brilliant faculty and proper accommodations as contributing to her success.

During this time, she got a job as a bookkeeper with CMI, a small company that was ahead of its time — from the beginning, it was an entirely remote enterprise.

“We were remote before it became cool,” she says, adding that remote work allows CMI to access a diverse pool of talent across Canada and provide team members with a healthy work/life balance.

Open mind removes barriers

Wood says her climb from bookkeeper to executive was fueled by hard work and determination, but also gives kudos to her employer, Bryan Jaskolka, CMI founder and CEO.

“My boss is one of the most supportive people I’ve ever met,” Wood says. “He doesn’t see disability — he will move barriers and help you find ways around them because he wants the best to work for him. He saw something in me, and it’s paid off for him, but I don’t know if I would have been able to put myself where I am without him.”

By 2020, despite her private mental-health struggles, Wood had earned herself a spot at the top. Then the pandemic hit and it all came crashing down. Calling it one of the hardest decisions of her life, she took a medical leave from work and sought help. That brave decision became the impetus that would change the trajectory of Wood’s life.

If there is a silver lining to the lockdown, it would be that counselling became available from a distance and, as a result, Wood was finally able to get the help she’d been needing for so many years. After 90 days of intensive treatment with the psychologist she credits with saving her life, Wood was back at CMI and looking for a way to explain her absence to her co-workers. She chose the truth, and was surprised when she was met not with judgement, but with countless stories that struck a similar tone.

Inspired by the positive reaction, Wood went public with her struggles in January 2021 with a post on LinkedIn. Her honesty was met with an outpouring of love and acceptance.

“I had always expected if I admitted I had a mental-health problem, people would be like, ‘She’s crazy. She can’t do the job. Why is she here?’ The opposite happened. Suddenly everyone was sharing their stories,” Wood says.

“And so, I decided from that moment on, I wasn’t going to hide anymore. I was going to scream my story from the rooftops. I was going to tell anybody who would listen. I was going to be the voice for the people who weren’t ready to share their own.”

Since that post, she has been featured in several articles and uses every platform available to spread her passion for mental health advocacy, sharing her message: “Asking for help doesn’t make you weak, doesn’t make you less. It makes you strong and powerful and brave.”

According to the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, one in two Canadians has or has had a mental illness by the age of 40. In any given year, one of five Canadians experiences a mental illness. Wood aims to reach them all with her story of hope, perseverance and self-forgiveness.

“People with mental illness spend a lot of time feeling like we’re a burden and feeling like we have to apologize for who we are. And we don’t need to. We’re enough exactly as we are. I am enough — all of me with the panic attacks and the depression and the hiding away — I’m still worthy of affection and acknowledgment and accommodation exactly as I am,” says Wood.

The future is wide open

Wood continues to work with her therapist on learning to live alongside her mental illness. She admits most of her progress is inward, but there have been visible changes. In November, she left her home to attend a holiday dinner at a nearby restaurant with 35 team members. She takes her dogs to the vet regularly. She has also started thinking about her future, something she says she’s never been able to do before.

“Anxiety is inherently bred in uncertainty. We fear what we don’t understand — and what’s more uncertain than the future? I realized that about myself and now I’ve got a big plan for the future,” she says. “Every ounce of blood, sweat and tears I put in right now is not for my retirement. It’s to start an animal sanctuary.”

She envisions an acreage among the rolling hills near her home in Hamilton, Ont., populated by rescued dogs, therapy horses, chickens, goats and more. The results, she says, will be as healing for the humans who visit as the animals who call the sanctuary home. With the support of her family, her friends and her dogs, she plans to create a refuge for the unadoptable and an oasis of healing.

“Everything I do is to work towards that,” she says. “I want people who struggle with their mental health to know that the future is not only possible — it’s well within their grasp.”

If you or anyone you know is struggling with their mental health, there is help available. Visit the Canadian Mental Health Association (cmha.ca) to find resources in your area, or, if you need immediate help, call 9-1-1.

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