Jason Pitre: raising awareness of mental illness

Mental illness can affect anyone, and good leaders learn about it and accept it – they don’t blame or disparage the person. This was Acadia alumnus Jason Pitre’s (’96) message to Resident Assistants and staff of Residence Life, more than 100 people in all, in the K.C. Irving Environmental Science Centre on August 26.

Looking back on his own Acadia days, Jason credits Dr. John Churchill with helping him to mature as a student. With a letter of recommendation from Churchill, he secured a place at the University of Reading, England, where he completed a Master’s in finance in 1997. He joined Scotiabank in November 1997.

Now, as Scotiabank’s Director and Head, Emerging Markets Rates Trading in Toronto, Jason works in a fast-paced, competitive environment. But after his father died in 2015 at age 64 from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), Jason’s journey through mental illness began.

“I was always driven by competition, and I hated to fail,” he says. “I think I didn’t allow the fact that my Dad was dying to enter my consciousness.”

Jason and his two brothers grew up in Bathurst, New Brunswick, where his dad, Gordon Pitre, was well respected. Besides volunteering with service organizations, he coached sports, was a Scout leader, and coached for the Special Olympics. “I have a middle brother who’s mentally challenged,” Jason says, “and Dad coached Special Olympics every week in Bathurst. He hosted the games for the Special Olympians on the East Coast. In 2010, Dad carried the torch for the Vancouver Olympics, taking all the children and adults with disabilities to walk with him. When he passed, I lost my mentor and best friend.”

A disabling fear

Jason’s grieving turned into a disabling fear that he himself had ALS. “I started having all the symptoms, and I was psychosomatically making myself sick. I was in this spiral, going from grief to fear of the disease. To make matters worse, although 90 per cent of ALS cases are random, 10 per cent are familial. But of that 10 per cent, if the gene’s there, then it’s 50/50 to each child.” In January 1998, Jason’s grandfather had also died from ALS.

Even after seeing two leading ALS researchers who found no sign of the disease, he remained convinced he had it. His family doctor suggested he speak to a therapist, and he met with a psychiatrist at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto. Gradually, he began to focus more on the present and defuse his debilitating thoughts.

“You feel alone, that nobody else could be going through this,” he says. “It took months of both my therapist and my family doctor telling me that I needed to take a leave from work to deal with this.”

Achieving wellness and giving back

Now his life includes long walks, listening to music, reading about faith, and meditating. “I am open to anything,” he says. Healthier eating, drinking and exercising may not create mental wellness, he adds, but they put you in a better position to achieve it.

After Jason returned to Scotiabank, he won the position of co-chair for the Scotia Alliance for Mental Health. In that role, he has given presentations internally to staff. He has also given a presentation to the Crisis Workers’ Society of Ontario and appeared on video to fundraise for St. Joseph’s Health Centre.

He was invited to come to Acadia and speak by Dr. Rod Morrison, Vice-President, Advancement.

“I have a voice, and I have leverage,” Jason says. “These students are our future leaders. If I can change their sensitivity to mental illness, that’s important.”

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