Rachel Fehr helped one of her students earn his black belt.

Rachel Fehr helped one of her students earn his black belt.

Smiling Dragon still fighting

Rachel Fehr is still trying to process the conversation she had with the CEO of Coast Mental Health, Darrell Burnham, who told her she was the 2017 Courage to Come Back award recipient in the mental health category.

“After explaining the judging process, I kind of had an idea of what he was going to say,” Fehr said. “I just wanted him to spit it out. But to be honest, it still hasn’t even sunk in.”

Fehr’s story is nothing short of inspirational. As a kid living in Haney, she was on the receiving end of severe bullying before falling in with the wrong crowd. Her father committed suicide when she was a year old, and her mother worked long hours as a nurse.

That began the downward spiral.

Fehr later became addicted to drugs like speed and eventually lost her two children, R.J. and Raven.

She went through years of having her mental illness misdiagnosed, grappling with the government and health services to receive the proper treatment. She staged a public, and real suicide attempt in order to even get treatment. It was a risky gamble for someone on the brink of losing her kids completely, but it worked out in the end: she was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.

“I knew I needed help, but they wouldn’t keep me in the hospital simply because I wanted the help and I wasn’t going to hurt myself,” she explained. “I had to make a suicide attempt that was so real I almost lost my kids. It’s almost like you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t… it’s a vicious, vicious circle.”

Fehr isn’t ashamed to tell her story, nor to fight the stigmatism that surrounds mental health issues.

She’s a fighter.

Fehr started and continues to run a youth group that teaches self-defence to at-risk children and women, called the Smiling Tigers.

Because it’s a youth group and involves teaching children a form of mixed martial arts, she’s having trouble securing gaming commission money that would provide the resources she needs to help turn around the lives of up to 200 kids.

She estimates she needs around $125,000 a year to run it, and already has a space chosen in Surrey, where she now lives.

“With that funding, I can multiple the number of kids I help up to four times,” she said. “I could see the kids, provide them with bus [passes], give them access to a computer for job searches or homework. It also gives them a safe place to get away from whatever is going on for them.

“If I wasn’t trained in martial arts, I wouldn’t have the things or skills I needed to continue fighting my mental health. I would have killed myself. That’s a guarantee.”

Fehr has been working with her Smiling Tigers for more than three years and has already seen the benefits for the children she’s worked with. One of the kids she’s worked especially hard with recently earned his black belt, going from failing every class to succeeding expectations.

“It’s changed every kid who’s come through my door,” she said.

She’s still found spare time to work on her nomination speech, but admits it’s going to be a tough haul to get through it in front of all her family and friends. Her boyfriend originally nominated her for the award, and it was backed up by letters of support from her children, as well as friends and students she’s worked with.

But with several CEOs and company executives expected to be at the awards, Fehr intends on using the speech to highlight what’s still wrong with the mental health system. She has already secured an interview with the federal Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, Delta’s Carla Qualtrough.

“Over the last three years, I’ve proven it works. I just need them to listen. It’s going to open the doors I need to be successful for these kids.”

• Fehr will receive her award alongside five other recipients on May 16 at the Vancouver Convention Centre.