How a police officer’s act of compassion changed Chris Nihmey’s life

Faces on CBC News Toronto

Faces of Mental Illness: Chris Nihmey named ambassador for national mental health awareness campaign

When Chris Nihmey’s parents finally convinced him to see a doctor about symptoms of an undiagnosed mental illness, Nihmey didn’t want to listen to the medical advice.

The physician told him he had bipolar disorder and gave him some pills to manage his condition. But Nihmey, then 26, didn’t think much of the diagnosis, and laughed off the doctor’s orders.

The pill bottle stayed in his medicine cabinet untouched for more than two years.

It was around that time the Ottawa man was also diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. When his mental illness threatened to end his teaching career, he kept his sickness a secret and continued supply teaching.

“It wasn’t until I hit my major low, which was in 2001, that my eyes opened and basically I had to take [the pills] to survive,” Nihmey told CBC Radio’s All in a Day on Thursday.

“Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”

Nihmey finally got the help he needed and has turned his life around to become one of five Faces of of Mental Illness, a campaign by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health (CAMIMH).

Visit from police a turning point

Nihmey told CBC Radio it was an encounter with an Ottawa police officer that changed his life.

During a phone call with his father from his apartment one day, Nihmey expressed suicidal thoughts. Feeling overwhelmed, he ripped the phone out of the jack and smashed it for nearly 15 minutes.

Shortly after, two police officers responding to a noise complaint knocked on his door. Clad only in boxer shorts, Nihmey explained to them what he was going through.

And he said these words, I’ll never forget them: ‘You’re going to be all right.’– Chris Nihmey

“I was 100 per cent sure I was going out in handcuffs,” he recalled.

Instead, one of the officers went into his bedroom and returned not with cuffs, but with a T-shirt, pulling it over the troubled young man’s bare torso.

“And he said these words, I’ll never forget them: ‘You’re going to be all right.'”

“What I saw that night was compassion, acceptance beyond no other, and it was the moment that I said I’m going to start writing the book that I planned with my dad two years ago. I started picking up my pen and I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote. And my story eventually turned into a book.”

Nihmey now an author, public speaker

In 2007 Nihmey began writing his memoir, Two Sides To The Story: Living A Lie. It describes his battle with mental illness, and since its release in 2013, more than 2,000 copies have been sold.

In 2016, Nihmey released an illustrated picture book, Sally, a heartwarming story centred on mental illness and homelessness, geared to any age. He has also spoken at more than 100 venues about his story.

It’s his advocacy on ending the stigma about speaking out about mental illness that led to his selection as one of the Faces of Mental Illness.

As a spokesperson for the national campaign, he said his goal is to create a line of communication between people who are struggling with mental health issues, and their potential supporters.

“It’s up to the people around us to say, ‘I care about you, I accept what you’re going through. I may not understand it fully, but I’m here and I’m a support for you,'” he said.

Those simple words, Nihmey said, can help people who are struggling down a path to rebuild their lives.

As one of the Faces of Mental Illness, Nihmey will be featured in a national media campaign, including short videos that will be shared with Parliamentarians at an event during Mental Illness Awareness Week from October 1 to 7, 2017.