A Lighthouse for Other People

Feature on Andrea Gordon of the CMHA

Andrea Gordon grew up in Eckville, Alta, a town with a population of roughly 1200 people. Eckville is west of Red Deer, and the town is known for their indoor rodeo show and their winter carnival. Eckville is quite small, with Gordon saying with a laugh “I had to run around the entire perimeter of the town twice,” to achieve an 8 kilometer run. Her graduating class had 27 people.

Small town living was a challenge for Gordon, with her saying in a Teams call, “I was definitely born into a small town, but I was not a small-town girl,” and adding, “Some people are born in small towns and stay there forever, and some people are meant to break free.” Connecting with people and exploring the world was keen for her as well, saying, “I love people.”

Gordon says, all while holding her dog Hugo in her lap, that Eckville is a town with two industries, agriculture and oil and gas, “Almost everyone in Eckville is either a farmer or works in the [oil industry].”

After finishing high school, Gordon moved to Red Deer and attended the college on site. After finishing with Red Deer College, Gordon registered in a collaborative teaching program through the University of Alberta (UofA). After graduating, Gordon started teaching soon after.

“I came out at 22 years old as a fresh-faced, brand-new little baby, and started teaching in school,” said Gordon with a laugh.

After working as a substitute teacher in senior high schools and elementaries, Gordon taught grade 3 for a year and a half, and soon after Gordon had her first child in 2003, and left teaching briefly.

Gordon did go back to teach in 2006, but it wasn’t long until she found something new to aspire to. It was at this time that she moved to Calgary and found work with an oil and gas company.

“I started and I thought, ‘I’ll work here for six months and then I’ll go back to my real job,’ but sometimes the career path trajectory just takes its own course,” said Gordon.

Gordon worked for that oil and gas company for 11 years, until the company laid her off due to budget cuts with the commodity market crash, “There were six rounds of layoffs at our company before,” said Gordon.

Andrea Gordon poses and smiles inside the Banker’s Hall building in downtown Calgary. Gordon worked for an oil and gas company for ten years, and it has provided her with plenty of experience for her future endeavours, which is currently as the Peer School Coordinator for the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). Gordon joined the CMHA amid the COVID-19 pandemic 2021, after thriving through many trials and tribulations. (Photo supplied by Andrea Gordon)

“A lot of us had to completely reinvent, and for me, I was lucky because I have transferable skills, but I didn’t go back to teaching,” said Gordon, adding, “I actually worked in hair for a while, because I always wanted to.”

Gordon had never been to a school, nor received training to work in a salon, but her friend that owned the salon gave her the means to learn the trade as an apprentice before she went and got her license.

However, when COVID-19 arrived in Canada, and caused province-wide restrictions on businesses like hair and makeup, Gordon was out of work once again.

In the middle of trying to acquire the license necessary to work as a hairdresser, Gordon’s partner took his life.

“He suffered from depression and took his life,” said Gordon.

“Everything in my world exploded.”

Gordon says that was a large reason why she decided to join the CMHA, saying, “I’ve always been very transparent about my story, because I think it’s important. I think that a lot of people are so afraid to talk about suicide loss, and about men’s mental health.”

According to the Toronto CMHA page on men’s mental health, four of every five suicides in Canada are males, and men in the UK are three times more likely to die by suicide than women. They also mention that suicide has overtaken car accidents as the leading cause of death for males since 1991 in New South Wales, Australia.

There’s a reason men commit suicide more often than women. Because they don’t talk about it.

On the same CMHA page, men may feel seeking help for depression isn’t a direction to go in because there is a belief that there is no problem to be had. Because of that, men are more likely to not seek health services for mental distress than women.

Gordon, being a fitness enthusiast and an avid runner for nearly 13 years, decided to set up a charity event to help fund men’s health by running and donating all the proceeds to men’s mental health programs in Sept. 2020.

Andrea Gordon stops for a breather after running 27 km outside out in Alberta, Canada, on September 27, 2020. Gordon started a charity event that involved running everyday to raise money for MenÕs Suicide Prevention. This journey was a step towards eventually becoming the Peer School Coordinator with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). (Photo supplied by Andrea Gordon)
Andrea Gordon stops for a breather after running 27 km outside out in Alberta, Canada, on September 27, 2020. Gordon started a charity event that involved running everyday to raise money for MenÕs Suicide Prevention. This journey was a step towards eventually becoming the Peer School Coordinator with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). (Photo supplied by Andrea Gordon)

“I raised $5,000 in eight days, so I upped my goal, and I added Center for Suicide Prevention (CSPYYC), which is actually a sister [organization] to CMHA as my second beneficiary, and I ran every single day,” said Gordon, adding, “I raised $11,500. And then I set a goal that one day I would work at the CMHA.”

Peer support and the CMHA are new for Gordon, with many years in different fields, and dealing with the loss of her partner is a tragic road to travel; however, as the Peer School Coordinator, Gordon has shown that she has the responsibility of ensuring the success of the peer supporters that are going through the peer support program with the CMHA, and has her lived experience to help her, which is a large part of the peer support model.

When it comes to peer support, Gordon says, “I fully believe in the power of being a lighthouse for other people.”

Lived experience is an important aspect to peer support, along with listening and taking in what the other person is saying without going into a clinical setting.

There's something that's so unique about the capacity of an individual to look at someone else and see trauma, or pain, or suffering, or struggling, and not look away and say, ‘I've walked this road, I understand. I don't know what your road looks like, but I'll walk beside you.'

Peer support is different from seeing a therapist or psychologist because of the lack of a clinical approach, which for some might be confusing since therapy is more along those lines; however, Gordon reassures that idea by saying, “When you consider somebody in a more clinical setting, you’ve got a clinician or practitioner and client,” and adding, “When you think about peer support, it’s person and person, I see you where you’re at, exactly where you’re at, and I would like to walk beside you.”

`{`Peer support`}` is not about treating or fixing or bandaging. It's about understanding and supporting and giving a sense of hope.

When it came to the loss of Gordon’s partner, she sought out forms of peer support with people that have experienced loss in their lives.

“I always refer to traumatic loss as this weird club. You get admission to the club through your loss, your unexpected or traumatic loss. Nobody wants to be in that club because the admission sucks,” said Gordon, adding, “But everybody who is in that club knows what it feels like. They can support you from a place of holding space.”

However, having people to talk with during that time was important to her, and continues to be for her, with her sharing a saying she believes in, “A problem shared is a problem halved.”

“If I kept everything to myself and didn’t share it with anyone and didn’t find those people that can help me carry the burden and help me figure it out, then my healing would be a lot different than it is today.”

Feature photo: Andrea Gordon holds a cup of coffee and poses for a photo outside of Banff, Alberta. Gordon is the Peer School Coordinator for the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). She made it a goal to one day work for the CMHA after completing her goals with a fundraiser she started for Men’s suicide prevention, which saw her raising $11,500 for the cause. (Photo supplied by Andrea Gordon)