Canada’s Capital has a Disability: Transit and Mental Health

It’s hard to be functional in a dysfunctional city.

I suffer from invisible illnesses that have greatly impacted my life. I currently do not work or pay taxes, which I guess means that society can label me as “dysfunctional”. Because I live on a low income, I cannot afford a personal vehicle, and therefore my transportation options are limited. Ottawa—or AUTOwa (as per the popular Twitter hashtag, #Autowa)—is not designed to prioritize people over cars. This leaves a huge responsibility for the public transit sector, and it’s no secret that Ottawa has failed to deliver on its promise of a world-class transit system. Since the launch of the LRT, there has been an outpour of people voicing their frustration with it, and with our transit system in general—and with reason. From a poorly designed system for the Canadian climate, to the lack of planning of bus routes and shortage of drivers, issues abound. But let’s face it, Ottawa never got it right, and it is people living with disabilities (physical and invisible), and those with low incomes who suffer the most. I am terribly sorry that our LRT and the bus route changes that came with it, are causing emotional distress… but I see a silver lining: with transit riders expressing their frustrations loud and clear, the important conversation about poor public transit and its effects on mental health has made its way to our collective consciousness.

In the ten years that I’ve lived in Ottawa (way before the LRT launch), my experience is that public transit here has always been terrible, and it has caused me a lot of distress. As a person living with a mental illness, having to depend on an unreliable transit system has been detrimental to my mental health and hindered my recovery from major depression. For years, I depended on public transit to go to medical appointments and therapies, wellness workshops, exercise, occasional social opportunities, and school. These resources, located across the city, allowed me to survive very dark times, and having access to them is crucial to my recovery, as they increase my wellbeing and help me build the skills and confidence that I feel I need, to be ready for “a normal life.” Knowing how critical attending these commitments was for my recovery, I tried to push myself, but with commute problems being so frequent that they were to be expected, it was very difficult to stay committed to improving my health. With late or ghost buses, missed transfers, tracking reliability issues, and an overall poorly designed transportation system, I missed appointments, had to pay late cancellations fees, I missed school and social events, etc. With all the other challenges that I faced, I didn’t have the energy to deal with the added emotional and physical consequences that the transit problems created, that avoiding life was my default impulse. Some days, the thought of going out of my apartment gave me so much anxiety and dread, that I felt instantly exhausted. There were phases when I continuously cancelled my scheduled outings and would isolate. It felt impossible to build a stable and sustainable routine that would allow me to envision working in a near future, without the fear of relapsing. Consistency is so important in recovery, but maintaining a healthy routine is very challenging when you have a mental illness. For years, I felt like I was fighting to barely keep my head above the water. I had ninety-nine problems, and public transit was certainly one of them. Life was hard enough as it is, that adding the daily frustrations of dreadful commute made me want to give up.

After struggling for many years, I realised that my only solution was to remove my biggest barrier that prevented me from achieving more progress; I had to move to a part of town where I wouldn’t have to deal with daily public transit usage. I moved near downtown, to a more walkable neighbourhood, and I wish I would have done it years ago. Since I moved, my life improved so significantly, that I would wish for everyone to have the freedom of living near most of their daily destinations. It’s a life-saver. Literally. I instantly felt the weight of social isolation lift off my shoulders. Not only am I able to access most of my necessary destinations at a walking distance, I also feel much closer to people and a vibrant community. It is inspiring and motivating, and I am grateful that I no longer have to endure the troubles of public transit, to access that. Now, I rarely lose the momentum of my motivation, like I used to. I still have bad days when I struggle to leave my apartment, but I tell myself that compared to before, it’s a small effort to go out, and it has the potential to transform my day, in a positive way. I can just walk out the door and be at a nearby coffee shop, within 5 minutes. Just smiling at a stranger on the street or interacting with the barista when I pay for my coffee, can get me out of my head to break the negative thought loops, and can activate my productivity.

Ottawa’s disabled public transit system kept me disabled and poor. It made me feel overwhelmed and deeply hopeless, because no matter my intentions and efforts, I had very little energy left to dedicate to taking constructive actions that would improve my life. However emotionally resilient that I thought I was, having chronic feelings of hopelessness forced my body shut down and avoid life. When I think of my experiences with the public transit system, the first word that comes to mind is “stress”… The last thing a person trying to recover from a mental illness needs, is MORE STRESS. Taking public transit should reduce the stressors of transportation; not add more. The physical, emotional and financial burdens of Ottawa’s public transit system is detrimental to people’s wellbeing, especially for those whose mental health is already fragile. A transit system that is inconsistent, unreliable, unstable and disabled, keeps people who are trying to be functional, dysfunctional.

Extensive commutes are dreadful, whether you are using public transit, or stuck in traffic inside your car. If this time could be spent doing more meaningful things it would greatly increase your quality of life. A better transportation system that includes good public transit and better neighbourhood design, could help create a functional, healthy and vibrant city that would benefit everyone in Ottawa, whether they suffer from a disability or not— but it could have an even bigger impact on someone’s ability to recover from personal challenges, to participate and ‘‘contribute to society’’, and to live a dignified life.

Dominique is a mental health advocate who volunteers at the Canadian Mental Health Association and is a board member at large at the Healthy Transportation Coalition.