‘Strong enough to share my story’

‘I want to be able to do everything I can to make sure we don’t lose another life to mental illness,’ Tara Hebblethwaite says

Tara Hebblethwaite was photographed for Grand by Alisha Townsend (freshstudios.ca)


By Barbara Aggerholm

Tara Hebblethwaite holds nothing back when she tells you about the mental illness that was wearing her down before a tragedy forced her to fight back.

She had lived in a bubble for a decade, struggling silently with severe anxiety, depression, panic attacks and an eating disorder, even while she was Miss Oktoberfest 2013.

Witnessing a young person’s suicide in 2014 made her confront her own problems.

Today, Hebblethwaite, 29, bright, articulate and engaging, is a passionate advocate for mental health. She believes she needs to tell you her story – the good, the bad and the ugly – to help you understand that we should be as open about fixing a mind as we are about fixing a broken bone.

“I’ve decided to use my voice and that’s what I’m doing. I just finally said, ‘This is who I am.’ ”

Hebblethwaite doesn’t miss an opportunity to speak to service clubs, women’s groups, at fundraising events or with individuals who ask her for help. The more we talk about our mental health challenges, the more we know we’re not the only ones who have them, she says.

Before she sought help, Hebblethwaite was so good at putting on a mask that you wouldn’t have known she had crying bouts without knowing why, suffered anxiety so crippling that she couldn’t get out of bed, had an eating disorder that sent her to hospital and panic attacks so extreme she’d curl up in a ball and scream.

She fulfilled her duties at Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest, the second-largest Oktoberfest festival in the world, as she met dignitaries and crowds, danced the polka and spoke to audiences, large and small.

“I was able to paint the picture of myself that I wanted people to see,” Hebblethwaite says. “The shiny crown hid that dark, dirty, broken crown that I didn’t want anyone to know I had.”

Today, with her help, she hopes you won’t be fooled into silence by how well a person appears to be functioning. A person with a mental illness can be highly successful. “The people you least expect are suffering the most.”

She wishes she could have told you earlier and used her platform as Miss Oktoberfest 2013 to advocate for taking care of ourselves mentally.

But she’s making up for lost time. Now, with counselling, medication, diet changes and an understanding of her triggers and the responses that can help her, Hebblethwaite is talking.

She willingly shares that she takes needed medication; takes time off work if she isn’t coping well; has support from her boyfriend, parents and friends if she has an anxiety attack. She has educated them to know that there are key words they can use and a reminder to breathe that helps relax her. They know the triggers that might lead to an attack and understand when she tries to avoid them.

To take care of herself, she cooks, buys her favourite peonies at the market, listens to music, runs, works out, cuddles her cat, Miley, and goes to yoga classes. She plays the “Candy Crush” game on her cellphone to focus her attention elsewhere. She goes to Toronto Wolfpack rugby matches – rugby is one of her passions – and she trades texts with her father about answers on “Wheel of Fortune” TV episodes.

People are listening to her.

“She is a great, great motivational speaker,” says Kelly Wilker, an Oktoberfest board member known as “Miss Oktoberfest Mom” for her involvement with the event and for her help during Miss Oktoberfest’s reign. “Tara is a very strong woman right now.

“She has taught me a few things about looking at things and people differently,” Wilker says.

“I think she has done an amazing job of sharing her story and her deep vulnerability,” says Donna Buchan, executive director of Lutherwood Child and Family Foundation. “She has become a real ambassador for mental health. She opens a conversation that people will hopefully have in their own families and community. It’s not shameful and it’s an illness that needs help.

“I think she’s also a role model in showing that you can be successful with something that is a daily challenge.”

In an interview at her lovely Kitchener residence decorated with inspiring quotations, Hebblethwaite, barefoot, wearing jeans and a white blouse, appears comfortable sharing her story. She had just returned home from a commercial gig as a professional model; work she used to do. “It was a fun day,” she says. “I’m focusing on things that bring me joy.”

Her apartment is close to the home in which she grew up. Her father, a veteran police officer, and her mother, a special constable for the OPP, still live there.

“My parents are my lifeline,” she says.

When her mental health advocacy was recognized last year with a Rogers Women of the Year award in the health and wellness category, it gave Hebblethwaite even more opportunities to open up about mental health.

“The journey into who I am is invaluable . . . because I am able to show everyone, especially those who are still clouded by stigma, what a person with mental illness can accomplish and how much your attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference,” Hebblethwaite wrote in an article published in the Waterloo Region Record this year.

Hebblethwaite has an honours bachelor of arts from the University of Waterloo and graduated with high distinction from Conestoga College. She has been recognized for her academic achievements and community involvement.

She has held multiple volunteer positions, including at Lutherwood, a not-for-profit health and social-service organization that provides mental health, employment and housing services. She is now employed as an assistant to the office of Lutherwood’s chief executive officer.

Hebblethwaite has served on the board of the Kitchener-Waterloo chapter of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) Canada; and this year, she is chairperson for the fourth straight year of A Blooming Affair Fashion Show presented by Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest. She began as a model in the show when she was 18, joined the committee in 2014, then took over as chairperson in 2015 when Lutherwood was the beneficiary. This year and next, money raised by the show will go to Extend-A-Family Waterloo Region.

She continues to help run Lutherwood Child and Family Foundation’s Steps for Kids event, a fundraising walk supporting youth with mental health challenges.

More than 600 people listened, spellbound, in 2016 as Hebblethwaite told her story at the Steps for Kids event.

Another time “she showed a group of strangers a picture of her having a panic attack, in full attack mode; red face, puffy, not looking like the ‘together’ woman,” Buchan says. “To share that so freely and openly is incredible. It’s not like it’s easy.

“I hear people say, ‘You’re speaking to me and I get it.’”

Once, after hearing her speak, a father approached Hebblethwaite with his teenaged daughter. “I want my daughter to meet you to see what she can accomplish. I want my daughter to get help,” the father told her. Hebblethwaite learned later the girl did get help.

Hebblethwaite wants people to be aware of changes in their friends or family members that might indicate they need help. Are they too tired; are they no longer joyful; are they distancing themselves or lashing out? Please don’t let the chance go by to talk to them about it, she says.

“It’s OK to say, ‘I’m concerned. Are you OK and what can I do?’

“My goal is to save one life by saying my story.”

Tara Hebblethwaite says these days she’s focusing on things that bring her joy. – Photo by Alisha Townsend (freshstudios.ca)


The turning point in Hebblethwaite’s struggles came when she witnessed a young man, whom she later learned to be smart, athletic, hard-working and popular, die by suicide.

She told his parents later that their 18-year-old son’s suicide helped her realize that she, too, was in desperate need of help. In a way, he saved her, she says.

It happened in September 2014 when Hebblethwaite was wrapping up her work day and looking forward to her final night mentoring young women vying to become Miss Oktoberfest 2014. She was looking out the window of the leasing office where she worked when the man, on his first construction job to earn money to pay for university, stepped off the 23rd floor of the building.

She was stunned. She tried but couldn’t move her legs to take the 15 steps down a steep staircase to go to him, though she knew there was nothing she could do. Others were attending to him.

“I called 9-1-1 and put my back against the wall and slowly sank down,” she says.

She learned about the young man from his parents whom she met at their son’s visitation, where they embraced her, and at a later counselling session.

“He had an infectious smile that went from ear to ear, and that smile hid his mental illness so well that no one knew he would step off the 23rd floor of the building I was working in and land right before my eyes on that first day of fall,” Hebblethwaite wrote in her Record article.

“Seeing someone take their life due to mental illness broke and haunted me. It tore my mind, heart and stomach into a million pieces. It broke down the strength I had to hide the fact that I was dealing with mental illness myself for more than a decade.”

Hebblethwaite went home to her parents but was called back later by police to relive what she had seen and heard.

Then, that night, she put on a smile and the Miss Oktoberfest crown for the event with the Miss Oktoberfest 2014 hopefuls.

“I needed to keep doing what I had to do. That was me. I was suffering but I just hid it.”

A few days later, she attended mandatory grief counselling. The experience had left her raw, with new triggers for anxiety: seeing the colour red or a construction worker in a harness; loud bangs and heights.

She had come to a crossroad. At a counselling session with the young man’s parents, she hugged his mother and said, “ ‘Your son saved me.’ I said, ‘I’ve been dealing and healing. Mental illness was killing me. My life has just begun again.’ ”

She continued therapy for two years with a grief counsellor whom she calls “an angel.”

“She kept saying, ‘Tara, my goodness if you have diabetes, you’d get treatment.’ She’d say, ‘Go get your brain fixed.’ ” Finally, after a breakdown, Hebblethwaite went to a doctor and started on medication in 2015.

Already a University of Waterloo graduate in sociology and legal studies, she became a student in Conestoga College’s office administration-legal program, where she excelled. She became more involved with Lutherwood, volunteering to run an art class for girls and young women at Lutherwood’s Children’s Mental Health Centre.

“It was so fulfilling working with them. I never, ever said, ‘I understand, ’ ” Hebblethwaite says. “I said ‘I can relate and if you ever want to know how, I’ll tell you.’ ”

Buchan praises her contributions. “To be a volunteer with the kids at Lutherwood is very hard work, and it’s really hard for people. She was a skilled volunteer with them.”

Hebblethwaite was a child when she was first exposed to the issue of mental illness. Her half-brother, now in his mid-40s, has schizophrenia. He has been missing for five years, she says.

Her own mental-health challenges began to appear when she was in Grade 7 and had transferred from a Christian private school to a public school. She felt “like a fish out of water.”

“I remember a sunny day at our cottage and I couldn’t stop crying,” she says. “I felt panicked. It came out of the blue. It hit me like a train.”

It was a confusing time for everyone, she says. Was she an “overdramatic” teen, as she was sometimes described, or was something else happening? The anxiety became worse during her teenage years.

“The biggest struggle is: how do you know (if it’s a mental illness)? I didn’t know. My parents didn’t know.”

She was bullied in Grade 9 and ended up switching schools. “People didn’t want to be my friend. They thought I was ‘crazy’ like my brother. His being called ‘crazy’ got my own stigma going.”

In her new school, she was able to develop a solid group of friends; friendships that continue today. “I made sure I needed to be perfect in my new high school.” If she had a panic attack, she left school for the day, telling her parents, “I’m having a really bad day and I feel really on edge.

“I didn’t want to say ‘anxious’ or ‘depressed.’ To me, those were the words deemed to be ‘crazy.’ ”

Hebblethwaite finally went to see a doctor in her late teens when the pressure of school was increasing the anxiety and panic attacks. He gave her medication, but she didn’t like taking the pills. It made her feelings too real: “If I took pills, I had something wrong with me. I didn’t want anyone to know. If I finally took a pill, I was suffering from a mental illness.

“All I ever wanted growing up was to fit in and be the best person I could be.”

She suffered from bulimia in her first year of university, where she lived in residence. One day at breakfast, she felt she couldn’t breathe. It felt like she was having a heart attack, she says. Her father took her to the hospital where she learned she had swelling around the lungs and heart.

After she was released from hospital, she resisted going into therapy, and she resisted her worried parents’ cajoling to enter a mental-health facility.

“I am stubborn. There would be times I would just sit beside my toilet and cry.”

The opportunity to enter the Miss Oktoberfest event seemed a good way to serve the community – something that is very important to her. It also suited an image she wanted to portray of “a put-together woman.”

When, to her surprise, she won, she soldiered through all the events, including meeting the premier of Ontario.

“I kept my feelings in a bubble until 2014,” she says. That’s when her world blew apart with the young man’s death by suicide, followed by her putting it back together, bit by bit, with all the help she’d denied herself earlier.

Hebblethwaite says she still has her struggles – a fellow vacationer’s suicide recently hit her hard – but now she knows what to do to take care of herself. And she no longer feels alone while she does it.

“I’m not ashamed to say I go to counselling when I need to,” she says. “I’m OK to say my medication is needed.

“Healing doesn’t mean the damage never existed. It means it never controls your life anymore,” she says.

“I’m proud of who I am and who I’m becoming. . . . I have this voice and I am strong enough to share my story. Of course there is a cost, but it is so worth it.

“I want to be able to do everything I can to make sure we don’t lose another life to mental illness.”


Here 24/7: 1-844-437-3247 — Call anytime to access mental health, addictions and crisis services

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868

Front Door: Walk-in counselling for children and youth and their families, 1770 King St. E., Kitchener – frontdoormentalhealth.com

KW Counselling Services: Walk-ins are welcome on Thursdays between noon and 6 p.m., 480 Charles St. E., Kitchener; 519-884-0000; kwcounselling.com

ementalhealth.ca: Database of mental health services and supports within your community