Last spring, Mike Santoro gave a conference at the Douglas as part of the activities of Social Work Week organized by Joan Simand, MSW, Professional Chief of Social Services, and her team. Social work aims to restore or improve social functioning of individuals, groups and communities, and Social Work Week highlights the many aspects of the discipline, including recovery.

Mike Santoro is on a mission: to destigmatize mental illness through education — talking about the facts and teaching coping mechanisms for people living with this illness.

Mike is the picture of confidence, happiness, and success. He has a healthy marriage and a beautiful daughter and to many he is considered a superstar. He travels giving talks to thousands of people (he hopes to one day tour North America), he has produced a DVD that has garnered two prestigious awards, and he has a very successful website, all in support of his mission. But Mike, like many of his devoted followers, lives with a mental illness.

"I have the privilege of being bipolar with the added bonus of having periods of total psychosis in extreme situations," he says, with a chuckle thrown in. "So I have highs and lows and I can lose touch with reality. I have symptoms of both schizophrenia and bipolar, which the professionals call schizo-effective disorder."

However, you would never believe it until Mike tells his story. He is subtle in his delivery, but the impact is powerful. He talks about his journey with his mental illness over the past 27 years and his strategies for coping so others like him can see hope through his words and then take that hope and slowly release themselves of the cocoon they are trapped in and one day be able to spread their wings and fly, as Mike has.

Mike's 80/20 rule

Mike's advice revolves around his self-made 80/20 rule, which means that, to stay healthy, you should rely on medication 20 per cent and support 80 per cent of the time. For example, the eighth 80/20 theme focuses on managing stress levels to prevent instability in one's life and to, therefore, prevent a potential relapse. The point is, medication may be an important tool to reduce the symptoms of mental illness but it alone cannot sustain wellbeing. “How we live every day, how we treat our bodies and minds, paints the rest of the picture,” says Mike.

"Reducing the stress that you face each day, while learning to cope with the stress that exists in your life, will have a significant positive impact on your wellness," adds Mike. "Other life skills include sleeping and eating well, exercising, pursuing activities that satisfy and stimulate you, as well as moderating your work load and many more. When combined with medication, all of these life skills will help to create stability, happiness, and peace."

Mike says his biggest reward is when someone tells him that he has changed his/her life for the better. "That for me," he says, "is the biggest paycheque I could ever receive because I have made a difference while living my dream…fulfilling my purpose. I believe people with a mental illness can be happy and successful. It may take a little longer than the average person and it may be a little harder, but they can do it. I am living proof."

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