Lee's Story

Lee Thomas is pretty busy for a 25-year- old: A new resident to Calgary, Lee is currently working on a Master of Social Work, delivering educational and motivational talks to high school students, sitting on multiple youth advisory groups and a member of Frayme’s Board of Directors and Advisory on Youth Matters (AYM) – and that’s just a tidbit of what their day-to-day looks like. 

To anyone observing from the outside, Lee is a confident, self-assured young adult with high aspirations and a respectable bucket-list, juggling several commitments with ease. But Lee’s journey to this moment in their life wasn’t easy or clear-cut. 

“When I was young, 11 or 12, I started struggling with an eating disorder and what we thought was depression,” Lee said. 

Lee emphasizes the word “thought” because growing up in a small town in northern Alberta, no one talked about mental health in any context - “I didn’t really know it was a thing.” 

When Lee was 18, they got help for their eating disorder from a student counseling center at their university. However, Lee’s eating disorder was merely an indication of something deeper going on.

Initially, Lee was told they had depression and was given many medications with not-so-pleasant side effects.  “My counselor tried what felt like a million different antidepressants but eventually referred me to a psychiatrist.” 

Lee was eventually diagnosed with ADHD and Bipolar disorder.  “I worked with my psychiatrist for about a year to get back on track.” 

After graduation however, Lee was left to their own devices and struggled navigating an overly-complex mental health system. “There just wasn’t any transition process at all, and after I graduated it took about a year to get a family doctor and two years to get a new psychiatrist.” 

Lee now believes that people don’t talk about the lack of transitions in care for young people starting and ending school, or going through other major life changes.

“There is no continuity of care, and now what I see in universities is a focus on what they call ‘short-term solution-focused counseling’ which isn’t necessarily helpful for someone with a chronic condition and sometimes the problem isn’t clearly definable.”

Lee’s experiences pushed them to become more active as a mental health advocate. Lee sees many of the gaps in the mental health system as indicative of bigger social issues the need to be addressed such as discrimination and prejudice.

“We need to address social issues in society in a more systemic way.”

In terms of their own role in addressing those issues, Lee is now on the National Youth Council for ACCESS Open Minds and running their own business doing psycho-educational presentations in schools about stigmas associated with eating disorders and being LGBTQ.  

“Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and help myself with the knowledge that I now know, but that’s obviously not possible so instead I am trying to help others.” Advocacy has always been a way for Lee to understand their own experience, and by speaking about it, Lee is able to learn more from it. 

Lee has also added roles within Frayme’s advisory councils to their list of daily responsibilities. 

They were first attracted to Frayme because of the emphasis on integration of services. “Mental health, sexual health, social services – everything is tied together.” 

For Lee, the holistic approach is important because they don’t think many people realize how hard it can be to have to go to a dozen different places for a dozen different things.

“Sometimes it feels like you’ve used all of your mental energy just getting to your doctor’s appointment.”

Lee plays a unique role at Frayme, as a member of both the Board of Directors and AYM. They believe that Frayme runs differently than any other board they’ve sat on because everyone in the room is excited to work with each other, compromise and listen regardless of what background they have. It’s a refreshing take for Lee. 

“Not everyone has the same experience so it’s important to be open and listen to different perspectives and experiences. As a young person, it’s also my job to be at the table to give youth input. If I was only there representing myself, I might not be as mindful but I am tasked with representing a very integral perspective.” 

As for Lee’s role on Frayme’ youth advisory council, they hope to lead a project that will share best practices for youth councils, allowing other  organizations that work with youth to learn from it.  

“Frayme is really a great experience because of the people that are at the table. It is rare to have people who not only know and understand the issue, but also actually have the power to do something about it.”

To learn more about Lee Thomas, visit www.leethomas.ca or follow them on Twitter @LeeNyree

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Photo by Shilo McCavour