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Elsie’s Story has been written by Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia volunteer, Nicole Regan. We thank Nicole for sharing her time, talent and typing to help us change the way people think!
Lean into it - this is the lesson that Elsie's story imparts to us. Embrace yourself and the events that have made you who you are, good and bad. Engage in life, with the people you love, and be the author of your own future. Leaning into who she was - a musician, a performer, singer/song-writer - saved the life of this new Nova Scotia inspiration. Her story (one that many of you will recognize) began with a young, beautiful, and talented girl who knew what she loved to do and did it all the time. Singing, dancing, it didn't matter - as long as she was performing. But in grade school Elsie endured continuous abuse from unrelenting bullies that left her feeling depressed, anxious and alone. She was silent about the torment she faced, and that only made her feel worse. She dreaded going to school and the silence surrounding her daily anguish morphed into silence in her passion. For Elsie, the music stopped. And unfortunately, the situation got worse before it got better when Elsie was forced to suffer yet another indignity.
Going into her grade 11 year, Elsie was “sucker-punched” (her words) by another girl from school. After the assault, Elsie found she could no longer hold in her feelings about the daily torment she was enduring, her passion to help others, and her hope for a better future. She began committing her feelings to paper; these were the words that would later be tools in her arsenal, tools in her fight against bullying.
Elsie found that writing down her feelings about and what had happened to her was immensely helpful, so she took that principle - engaging with life - and ran with it. She taught herself how to play the guitar and then combined her talents to produce several songs based on her experiences. Despite being in the very thick of it, Elsie had decided not to turn her back on the things she loved to do - even if it meant putting her vulnerability on display, even if it meant telling the world about the cruelty she had suffered. This was a major success in and of itself; Elsie had returned to her passions. She had taken her pain and fear and turned them inside-out. She bore them for the world, and sang proudly that they would not define her. But Elsie's success would not end with this triumph alone.
Although Elsie found she had many musical role models (like Taylor Swift's country music, and her own father's music), role models who had experienced bullying or mental illness were few and far between. Her goal was to be that person for the next generation of the bullied, the ill, and even the bullies themselves. In order to achieve this goal, though, she would have to put herself to work once again. Elsie reflected on her story, practiced her songs, and in doing so, found a new and even stronger voice.
Elsie began e-mailing schools in her area and, in November of her grade 12 year, she united her music, her story, and her passion into one presentation: No Time For That (“NTFT”) was born. After the first show, kids overwhelmed her with gratitude. That was when Elsie knew her anti-bullying presentation would not be a one-time occurrence. She could not allow something that had the power to bring so much love and understanding to people who felt so alone to be a one-off event.
By this time Elsie was still dealing with her own tormentors at school, so when the children at that first presentation responded so emphatically to her message she knew what she had to do. Elsie decided to home-school herself for the latter half of her grade 12 year, and spent most of her extra-curricular time developing her charity, the “No Time For That Anti-Bullying Society”.
Today, Elsie and the NTFT tour have been to over 500 schools across Canada, and the NTFT Anti-Bullying Society is a registered Canadian charity. Elsie plans to keep the presentation free-of-charge, and to continue visiting as many schools as possible. She intends to grow her charity and has dreams of it one day spreading internationally.
But, how did she do it? How was she able to rise from the lowest point in her life, to become a national role model and mentor? Initially, Elsie fell into the same trap that many of us do when trying to cope with a mental illness: the worse Elsie felt, the less she engaged in her favourite activities. Although this is a common phenomenon among those who are suffering - disengaging from the things we love and derive intrinsic value from - it tends to only compound the problem. Instead, Elsie's advice is simple (if not still difficult to achieve):
"Talking about it helps - don't be afraid to talk to somebody. If the first person you reach out to doesn't give you the help or the support you need, don't give up. Keep trying and you will find those people who will support you. It's okay to not be okay. You're going to have really bad days, but you're also going to have really good days and those days are worth fighting for. It's so important to focus on the positives and what you love to do, even though that's hard sometimes. You have to keep remembering why you are fighting, and focus on them. Surround yourself with the people who accept you for who you are, who are going to support your dreams, and who will care for and love you. Don't let people or things bring you down even though that will be hard sometimes. You just have to persevere through it and NEVER give up."
It's clear that Elsie knows what she's talking about. She's been through it, and she did what she had to in order to come out the other side. She surrounded herself with people who love and support her, she focused intensely on the things she loves, and she took the initiative to make her life and the lives of others better. That being said, Elsie knows mental illness is incredibly tough; she still struggles with bad days herself. To combat days like these, Elsie keeps constant reminders of why she does what she does posted everywhere. Whether they're inspirational quotes on her phone background, gifts from schools she's visited, or screenshots of comments from kids who were impacted by her story, these reminders are key for Elsie when she’s facing a bad day.
Originally from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Elsie and her family moved to Nova Scotia in 2016 after touring all over Canada and visiting schools across the Maritimes. Elsie says that she and her family fell in love with Atlantic Canada, especially Nova Scotia:
"I've lived in a bunch of different places and I went to eight different schools, but this is the first time that I know all of my neighbours and I know so many people in the community... I love the people here - they are so nice... Another thing about the Maritimes that I fell in love with was the appreciation of arts and culture. When we were looking at houses out here (and we looked at a lot) every single house we saw had a musical instrument of some sort in it. That was the coolest thing ever."
Elsie also noted how inclusive both the people and the music scene have been, citing the fact that she's only a newcomer to the province and yet she's been nominated for Music Nova Scotia's “Country Recording of the Year. Additionally, the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia has awarded Elsie a 2017 Community Grant. When speaking with her, Elsie impressed upon me how grateful she is to the Mental Health Foundation, and how absolutely vital the Community Grant is to her charity: she noted that the tour she will now get to do of 20 Nova Scotian schools this month simply would not be possible without it. I also spoke with President and CEO of the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia, Starr Cunningham, who expressed her appreciation for this budding role-model, "The Foundation is proud to support Elsie as she spreads her powerful message of hope to Nova Scotian students. Her talent and commitment to changing the way people think shines through with every word she speaks and every lyric she sings."
Elsie believes that re-engaging in music saved her life. Music gave her an outlet for her passion, it gave purpose to her life, and it gave her perspective on what had happened to her. Accepting and loving herself, the way she would others, have also played significant roles in her transformation from silent victim to public-speaking warrior. Talking about what happened, both privately at first and then publicly, was also an important aspect of her on-going recovery. Elsie admits that, "It's really hard. But what I'm doing is just so healing and the fact that I can turn my negative experience into a positive and reach out to so many kids across Canada is so rewarding. It's just the best feeling in the world and I hope I can continue to use my platform to make a difference."
There's no doubt that this young inspiration will keep up her good work. Elsie’s full-length debut album released just over a year ago hit #28 on iTunes and she is already undertaking a new project, a weekly radio show called One Talk at a Time (beginning November 6th, 2017, from 9-10 PM on 97.5 FM) which tackles many issues but focuses mainly on bullying, mental health awareness, and passionate people.
Elsie's gratitude to her fans, supporters, and others who have readily accepted her is evident in every presentation she gives. Her enthusiasm, courage, and tenacity have the power to literally save the lives of our young people, and no doubt have already done so. Elsie Morden was bullied for being who she was, but instead of changing to please others she leaned into that which made her unique, and in it she found her voice - a voice that sings of hope.
Elsie was recently named one of 150 Leading Canadians for Mental Health by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. As a CAMH Difference Maker, Elsie performed at the Atlantic Canada recognition ceremony last week at Pier 21, where our own Starr Cunningham (who was also named a 150 Leading Canadians for Mental Health) spoke on behalf of our regions Difference Makers.