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Talking About Mental Illness

For Michael Schratter, cycling around the world to raise money for the Canadian Mental Health Association is a breeze. The hard part was going public with his own illness.
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For Michael Schratter, cycling around the world to raise money for the Canadian Mental Health Association is a breeze. The hard part was going public with his own illness.

Last May, Michael Schratter stood before a group of students crammed into a classroom at David Oppenheimer Elementary, where he teaches fifth grade. He told them that in the summer he'd be leaving on a long bicycle trip. Outlining his projected route on a Smart Board, he described his plan to cycle 40,000 kilometres in 400 days to raise funds for the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and help remove the stigma around those who've suffered from mental illness. 

"Where will you go to the bathroom?" asked a 10-year-old boy.

"Like a bear, in the woods," Schratter answered. (Loud chorus of "Eeeeewww!")

"Where will you have a shower?"

"Mostly in lakes or rivers along the way."

"So you'll be naked?" (Uncontrollable giggles.)

A week earlier, when Schratter told his colleagues of his plans, it required nakedness of a different sort. Until then, he'd let only a few family members and friends know that he'd been diagnosed as hypomanic, a mild form of bipolar, in 1990, and with ADHD a few years after that. "People ask me how I have the courage to bike around the world," he says. "That to me is the easy part. The hard part was when I had to admit to the staff at school that I suffered from mental illness."

Built like a rugby winger-lean and compact, with a beaming smile and a shock of strawberry blond curls-Schratter, 41, makes a compelling, if complex, poster boy for mental illness, especially in a city that has practically made a tourist attraction of its outdoor insane asylum. "The Downtown Eastside," he says, "these poor people muttering to themselves-that's what most people think of. Yet one in five people will be treated for some form of mental illness in their lifetimes, and virtually everyone is affected by it." 

Schratter set off on August 1, heading south. Click here for a selection of our favourite photos from his journey thus far.  

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