Story of mental health struggle brings hope

By Paul Mayne


“It was clear something was amiss,” said Harlin Braichet, looking back at his teenage-self growing up in Sarnia.

“It hadn’t manifested itself completely, but once I got to university in the States, that’s when my behaviour became more and more erratic and I knew something was up, but I certainly didn’t know it was schizophrenia.”

It’s been almost 20 years since Braichet, BMus’13 (Honors), through the help of proper medication, has been in control of his mental illness. But getting to that point was not a simple journey for the now 42-year-old musician and teacher.

“At the time, no one really thought I was mentally ill, they just thought that I was a young 21-year-old kid having problems,” said Braichet, who was attending the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, one of the top music schools in the world, when symptoms of schizophrenia first became apparent. “I thought my life was going to be about, being a big-time musician, and I was being groomed for that.”

In second year, his symptoms worsened and Braichet withdrew from friends, didn’t attend class and began acting out violently. By third year, on the recommendation from doctors, and the university, Braichet was asked to leave school, with the consensus returning home would be best for all involved.

“The initial thought was, ‘sounds like depression, give him two months and he’ll be back on his feet again,’” he said. “It didn’t go that way at all.”

After leaving university, Braichet was sent to Regional Mental Health Care (RMHC) in St. Thomas, where after a three-month stay, and suspicion of his symptoms being just the behaviour of “a bratty kid,” he was sent to London RMHC where doctors began to think he may be suffering from schizophrenia.

It took years and a number of doctors to get a proper diagnosis and to determine the right medical treatment plan for Braichet.

It was 20 ago – in March 1997 – that things started to turn around for him. And it was at Western, in 2010, where Braichet first shared the story of his journey dealing with mental illness.

“Initially it was a little scary, but once I got going, and I found out I was pretty good at, it took off from there with folks asking me if I could speak again to different groups,” he said, adding the social climate these days is more accepting when dealing with, and talking about, mental illness.

“You see advertising for it, there are celebrities advocating for it, and it was just good timing all around as to when I became well enough to speak about it. It seemed to be what I was meant to do with what life had given me.”

A short time later, Braichet would find himself back at Western, this time in the classroom, wrapping up his music degree. It was one of the things that had bothered him – one of the incomplete things in his life.

For the successful musician – with two upcoming musicals at Sarnia’s Imperial Theatre this summer – and private music teacher, a degree wasn’t necessary. At the same time, it was.

“It was a personal thing” he said. “I didn’t go back to Western because I was looking for the percussionist teacher to make me into the world’s greatest percussionist, but (it was) more about the degree. Doing a university degree is hard, and then you got the added weight of struggling with a mental illness. It was a lot of work, but it was cool to graduate and have that part of my life complete.”

Braichet’s mom, who passed away this past year, played a huge role in his recovery and he was thrilled she was able to see him flourish on his road to recovery.

“What was kind of cool was, she had the opportunity to see me get better, which made her very happy,” said Braichet, who continues to get a lot of feedback from his talks – from people that have a brother, family member or a friend going through the same thing – that it’s nice to hear there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

“It seems like this is what I’m meant to do, to educate people and give them hope. It feels like now I have a sense of purpose with what happened to me. When I initially got sick, and everything was going terrible, of course I was asking why this is happening. Now I see the point of it all was for me to go through that and recover from it, so I can be a bit of a trailblazer for other people who might be suffering as well.”