Opinion
5 min

Are we responsible for our community’s mental health?

Dean Thullner’s new fundraiser Shine aims to ease stigma and raise awareness

As a long-term HIV survivor, Dean Thullner decided he would “live to turn my despair into hope.” He believes hope is best achieved by giving hope to others. Credit: Deepak Chauhan/Daily Xtra

It is only the most extreme and visible instances of the interface between mental illness and addiction that we notice. People who talk to themselves on street corners, who huff on their pipettes around the corner in the alley because they have no place else to go. People who scream incomprehensible obscenities at passing strangers.

People like Brad.

Brad was one of those cute young things who hung out at The Taurus Baths in the 1970s, shooting pool in the lounge and hustling $20 blowjobs. Cute, wholesome, clean-cut, puppy-dog friendly, and he gave great head. So he got by.

I don’t know how old he was when it all started. I was in my early 20s and he may or may not have been old enough to drink. Or even drive. They were pretty lax about ID at The Taurus, especially if you were all that.

Fast forward 20 years to the early ’90s and one evening I’m on my way down Davie Street when a broken man in filthy rags squatting on the sidewalk holds up his cap with the timeless appeal for “spare change?” and our eyes meet. Gears turn, memories churn, and with a toothless smile he adds, “Kevin?”

Brad! Holy shit! Really?

Yes, really. And there follows a semi-coherent stream of consciousness litany of 20 years of what went wrong. The booze, but he was only drinking beer now, and the drugs, but he was only smoking pot now. Hadn’t touched crack in at least a week. Well, almost a week anyway. Want to score some shit and hang out?

And so it went for the few minutes I could bear. Twenty bucks for old-times sake, good luck Brad, hope things work out. Though they obviously wouldn’t.

A ruined life, a ruined mind. How did this happen? What can be done? Whose fault was this anyway?

Yet another 20 years on and I still haven’t entirely figured out answers to the first two questions, but I have some thoughts on the third.

Do drugs lead to mental illness? Does mental illness cause one to do drugs? I sure as hell don’t know, and as far as I can tell professional opinions are sharply divided. But I do know that my generation and cohort, in the full-on party that ran from the late ’60s through to the early ’80s, all have a share of the blame.

We enabled each other’s worst impulses, normalized heavy drinking and non-stop drug use, and turned our backs on those who were too depressed (we thought they were depressing) or erratic (we knew nothing of schizophrenia or bipolarity or any other mental illness). They were just too out of control and so we separated them from the herd, or they separated themselves.

Unseen for many years, and likely dead now, Brad was one of those extreme and visible cases of addiction and mental illness that have, in retrospect, been a feature of life in our community for as long as I can remember. But the less public instances abound.

Someone should step up and do something about this.

And someone is, and has been stepping up for five years now.

Dean Thullner is the producer of Shine, a new fundraiser to support mental health care.
Deepak Chauhan/Daily Xtra

Pride Legacy Award recipient Dean Thullner, co-owner with his husband David Veljacic of the Davie Village’s Volume Studio Hair Salon, has for years been producing events in support of AIDS, mental health and addiction research and treatment. He founded the St Paul’s Hospital Foundation fundraising gala Brilliant! in 2012, produces the Foundation of Hope’s annual Strut walk in support of LGBT refugees, and put together this February’s Red fashion show in support of Positive Living.

Diagnosed with HIV in his 20s and told he had only months to live, Thullner, now 53, knows a bit about depression, despair, and addiction.

His own post-diagnosis emotional and mental roller-coaster ride, and the later misdiagnosis and over-medication of his husband — who was wrongly thought to be bipolar but later discovered to have brain damage due to numerous sports-related youthful concussions — brought Thullner to an understanding of the interconnectedness of physical, emotional, and mental health.

“The people who saved our lives in the early days of AIDS were the doctors who kept us alive and the psychiatrists who made us want to stay alive,” he says.

“But making the disease manageable didn’t necessarily make our lives manageable,” he continues. “There were so many who, given what was essentially a death sentence, put everything in their lives on hold, gave up their education and career paths, blew whatever savings they might have had and essentially cashed in their chips and decided to party their way to the end.

“Then, a few years later, to be told that life was going to go on, that was another shock to deal with. There’s a little acknowledged PTSD among long-term HIV survivors. Many of us ‘survived’ but have not survived.  So many just didn’t have the ability or the support to put their lives back together. So the spiral of depression, substance abuse, and mental illness continued.

At some point Thullner decided that he would “live to turn my despair into hope” and determined that hope was best achieved by giving hope to others, which he has done through the many causes he has dedicated his life to.

Dean Thullner stands at the entrance to Jim Deva Plaza, near his salon in the Davie Village.
Deepak Chauhan/Daily Xtra

When we last visited Thullner in this column he had just resigned as producer of Brilliant!, saying that he had been told by Foundation officials that, in order to placate the Catholic hierarchy and to cater to a new demographic of high-level donors (read: offshore millionaires) he needed to tone it down and have “no gay on the runway.” The Foundation denies that any such instruction was given, but it’s hard to imagine why someone would walk away from a project he had put his heart and soul into for years unless he felt pushed, one way or another. Given the Roman Catholic Church’s track record on its inclusiveness and transparency files, I’m going with Thullner’s take on things.

Another sticking point had been the Foundation’s preference to leave the Commodore Ballroom, the original and fully donated home of Brilliant!, and move to larger and costly premises at Rocky Mountaineer Station.

But Thullner is not the kind of guy to sit around moping over past setbacks and betrayals. “That was then,” he’ll tell you. “I’m all about what’s next.”

Within days, maybe even hours, of leaving Brilliant!, he had booked the Commodore and announced the advent of Shine, featuring a cast of hundreds of stars from the fashion and entertainment scenes to support the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Lion’s Gate Hospital Hope Centre.

Past supporters and participants in Brilliant! have followed Thullner and his amazing crew to this new venture. On stage and backstage, more than 300 hairdressers, makeup artists, singers, dancers, choreographers, drag queens, celebrity hosts Fiona Forbes and Symone, and who knows how many ushers, greeters, and gofers will be on hand Sept 10 to acknowledge our responsibility for the mental health of our community, and to do something about it.

The list of well-known names is exhaustive, so I won’t even start. You can find them all at the Shine website.

Everyone volunteers their time and services, and everyone who takes a seat in the audience, regardless of their contribution to the event, buys their own ticket.

“It’s about our community giving back and expressing itself on its own terms,” Thullner always emphasizes in discussions about Shine and his many other charitable endeavours.

Another theme for Shine is removing the stigma around mental health challenges. Our friends struggling with depression, undiagnosed and untreated issues, addiction, and the myriad interfaces of all these and more, including the PTSD that we don’t realize is common among long-term AIDS survivors, need to know that we care, we don’t judge, and we want to be here for them.

We need to be here for them. In a way that I wasn’t there for Brad.