Creating a Spark


Bill MacPhee’s Journey through Mental Illness 


A charismatic business owner, husband and father of three children, Bill MacPhee is the last person you would ever think struggled with mental illness. However, at the age of 24, MacPhee was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent the subsequent five years of his life in and out of hospitals and group homes, struggling with a suicide attempt and sitting on his parents’ couch watching daytime television.MacPhee will be speaking about his experiences at the High Notes Gala for Mental Health at the Flato Markham Theatre on May 6, 2017. “I was scared to death that five years would turn into seven years and seven would turn into 10 years,” says MacPhee, as he reminisces about that difficult time. “I needed to create a spark in my life.”

That spark came from attending community events, library programs and meeting Executive Director of Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Martha Mason. MacPhee remembers something his grade seven teacher told him: “If you don’t know how to write properly in life, you’ll never amount to anything.”

This harsh lesson led MacPhee to contact the literacy foundation, where he connected with Martha Mason, who would go on to give him weekly lessons and eventually refer him to college. Reluctant at first, MacPhee agreed to let Martha drive him to his course. Although he was still dealing with “emotional blandness and lack of joy” as he puts it, he went through the motions, bought a camera, attended the field trips and eventually things started looking up.

It was in 1993, at a local library, that MacPhee stumbled across a book on 101 ways to start a business with little or no capital. At that moment, a light bulb went off. He realized he could start a business relating to schizophrenia. In March 1994, his magazine, Schizophrenia Digest, was incorporated. Due to the stigma surrounding mental health and the embarrassment his subscribers felt in receiving the magazine to their homes, he changed the name to SZ Magazine.

MacPhee says he was never ashamed about his story and never shied away from talking about it. From the moment he first started speaking about his experience, he realized how much he enjoyed it and how much it could help other people. He has been speaking for 25 years now.

He attributes mental health stigma to two things. The first is the isolation people feel when they are struggling. They think they are the only ones struggling and try to suppress it. The second reason is that the field of psychiatry is relatively young. He says, historically, psychiatrists in the ‘50s and ‘60s blamed illnesses like schizophrenia on how parents raised their children.

“When you have doctors telling you you’re the reason for your son or daughter’s schizophrenia, you don’t want to tell anyone. Doctors today know that it’s a chemical imbalance, but back then it had stigma because the medical model played a role in that.”

In order to erase the stigma, MacPhee suggests that people focus on the positive, just as the speakers and performers at the High Notes Gala do. He is absolutely amazed at the talent and how musicians and artists are able to move forward. MacPhee thinks the participants of the 2017 High Notes Gala for Mental Health prove that “people are more than their mental illness.” According to MacPhee, removing the stigma it is a barrier to getting help. Sensationalism on the news is running rampant and people tend to focus on what they do not understand. “They are afraid to get help because they don’t know what to expect—they are afraid to be institutionalized forever.” He believes one of the biggest things society can do is to educate journalists on the “myths and truths” of mental illness. For MacPhee, “to educate a generation of journalists is to change the whole generation of the population.”

The 2017 High Notes Gala for Mental Health at the Flato Markham Theatre is doing just that. “It’s a great event and a fun night,” says MacPhee who defines recovery as the moment when “you wouldn’t want to be anyone else other than who you are today.”