Finding Faith and Recovery with Santa Ono

Santa OnoPodcast, Podcast Season 1

Episode Description:

The University of British Columbia’s President and Vice-Chancellor, Santa Ono, PhD, shares candidly about his own mental health journey and how faith and the love of Christians buoyed and carried him through dark times. He discusses his role at one of Canada’s top universities, and his efforts to raise awareness, shape policy, and allocate funding and resources to bring care within the reach of students who are wrestling with their own mental health challenges.

A Note of Caution: This episode of The Sanctuary Podcast deals with sensitive subjects such as overdose and suicide, so please use your discretion about whether listening feels safe for you at this time. If you’re unsure, consider listening with a trusted friend.

Running time: 41:41

Release date: March 19, 2020

Additional resources:

For your quick reference, here are nationwide emergency numbers and crisis lines:

  • Canada: 911, Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566
  • British Columbia: 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)
  • United States: 911, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • United Kingdom: 999/112, Samaritans: 116 123
  • New Zealand: 111, 1737, Lifeline Aotearoa: 0800-543-354
  • Australia: 000, Lifeline: 13 11 14 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Bipolar disorder (previously described as manic depression)

Thrive Program at UBC

Mental Health Literacy Program developed at UBC

Mental Health First Aid

Canadian Mental Health Association


This episode of The Sanctuary Podcast deals with sensitive subjects such as overdose and suicide, so please use your discretion about whether listening feels safe for you at this time. If you’re unsure, consider listening with a trusted friend. The Sanctuary Podcast is intended for informational and educational purposes only, and is not a substitute for medical or mental health advice. If you feel you may need medical or mental health advice, please consult a qualified healthcare professional. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, please tell someone, or if you are in Canada, you can call 1-800-SUICIDE for immediate help.

Santa Ono: The most powerful thing that you can provide, someone who’s in trouble like I was, is to just be there.

Sarah Kift: Intense pressure to succeed can crush the spirit and cripple the mind, the University of British Columbia’s President and Vice Chancellor, Santa Ono, is successfully leading one of Canada’s top Universities, as part of a celebrated career, and using his own story to make space for mental health awareness, and the opportunity to heal in one of the most demanding, and stressful academic environments, he uses his influence to shape policy, fund support systems and care networks, designed to help students who are wrestling with mental health challenges, and he tells his own story to show that vulnerability, humility and compassion are essential qualities in a leader, and real change can come from telling ones story of brokenness, especially from the pinnacle of perceived success.

I was struck by the juxtaposition inherent in our interview location, a pristine conference room at the top of the University, in the seat of power and prestige, and Santa the University President, sitting there sharing his journey so candidly, authentically and with ease. This is a man who has lived through suffering, and used its dark gifts to bring the possibility of healing within the reach of many.      

Well Santa it’s great to have you here today.

Santa Ono: Thanks for having me.

Sarah Kift: Actually you’re having us because we’re sitting in your office.

Santa Ono: Well this is a public University so it actually belongs to everyone, so.

Sarah Kift: Absolutely. I wonder if you want to start by talking about your own story, your journey through mental health.

Santa Ono: Well I’d say that I was born in Vancouver, when my father was Professor at UBC of Mathematics, and I was born to an immigrant family, who had left Japan after the Second World War, and you know I have tremendous respect for my parents, they had to start a new life with very little in their possession, and we moved from Canada when I was a toddler, and moved to Philadelphia, and my memories of Philadelphia are very happy ones. We moved into what was, at that time I thought was a massive house, because we lived in a very small junior faculty apartment here, on the campus here at UBC, and we moved from there to a detached house, and I thought it was massive, and everything was magical, you know we had, a large family car for the first time, it didn’t work very well because cars didn’t work very well back then, and it had a second floor with a bannister, and I remember sliding down the bannister as a, as a primary school kid. Things were very, very happy.

And then my father, and my family moved to Baltimore Maryland, where my father was recruited away from the University of Pennsylvania to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. And I moved there in the second grade, and it was a little bit of an adjustment, we had moved a couple of times and, it was a little bit of an adjustment because at that time I was beginning to become more aware of who, who I was and, you know in elementary school and then middle school things were pretty good, we were a minority population, there were not many Asians in the northern suburbs of Baltimore at the time, and so there was a little bit of racism and, it wasn’t, didn’t really manifest so much in primary school, because there’s not much of that in primary school, and I really enjoyed middle school, but just at the cusp between middle school and secondary school, or high school as they called it then, you know, kids would become a little bit more racist, and also things were breaking down a little bit at home, and there’s certain things I don’t really want to speak about still to this day, about things that were happening in my home, and there was also this problem for me of birth order, I was a middle child, and I was born with an older brother who was a child prodigy, an incredible pianist and he had at that time already won competitions, both local and national, and had already performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Sarak Kift: Wow.

Santa Ono: So a little bit difficult to live up to a first brother, older brother as the second child. Things were still ok before my younger brother was born, because I was the baby of the family, briefly, and then my younger brother was born and my father is a mathematician as I said, and his, he always wishes that I think that he was a pianist, and he lived vicariously through my older brother as he excelled in piano, classical piano. And my younger brother, at a very young age showed an aptitude for mathematics, and it’s turned out to be true, he is currently an outstanding mathematician, and he’s just moving to the University of Virginia from, from Emory University in Atlanta, but he showed very early on, that he was very good in my fathers own occupation of mathematics, and you know in primary school he would say things like it’s obvious that there is an infinity, because if you take any number x, you can always add 1, so there is no last number. And so my father was very proud of him, and obviously has reason to be and is still proud of him today, and I’m proud of both of my brothers, but then there was me, who wasn’t as talented in mathematics, wasn’t as talented in music, and these were the two loves of my father, and I think that there was nothing malicious, I think that academic success, and success in music is a priority for Asian families and, so I think that part of it was probably self-inflicted, but I began to develop real feelings of inadequacy, and hopelessness.

When I was in, in middle school it wasn’t as severe, but it became increasingly difficult for me, I had moments where, for example in studying trigonometry, the horrors being the son of a mathematics professor, I actually got a C, and a B was barely acceptable, the expectation was for an immigrant family, because of the love, they wanted me to succeed, they wanted all of us to succeed, and that meant in their mind trying to be better than local kids because, of their perception it would be more difficult to succeed, and so it was through their love that they put some pressure on us as, and it’s nothing that’s unique to our family but, so that, that lack-luster performance really also started to affect me as well, and so I started, having problems, probably when I turned 13, and certainly at 14, where, where I started to become very introverted and withdrew from, my interactions with my classmates, I was pretty popular before then, and we were encouraged increasingly as we came closer and closer to the years that matter for University admission, to focus more on our studies, and so that resulted in my having less contact with, with my peers. I would see them playing outside and I was really encouraged, especially with my poor performance to stay inside and to do more, more tuition as they say, to do more studying, and so that brought me even more isolated, I felt hopeless and inadequate, and probably incorrectly unloved in my family, and it was exacerbated by the fact that my brothers on both sides were, were just, excelling. And if you think back to, to when you were 13 or 14 it’s an awkward age, and as a young, as a child your whole world is seen through whether you’re accepted by your family, or not and your friends, and so I didn’t have much opportunity to, to build my friendships and, and I didn’t feel very connected to my family.

Sarah Kift: Santa spoke very freely and in detail with me, about attempting to take his own life at age 14 through an overdose, and the trauma that he kept inside following that experience.

Santa Ono: And I think my parents didn’t think anything was wrong, because you know maybe they were out bringing my brother to a music lesson or something like that, and it was a Saturday, and teenagers sometimes do sleep in late. And so I never told them, you know I was very, very exhausted and I, you know some people when they try to take their lives they feel, very happy the next day as if I wasn’t successful, but I guess a reflection of my state of mind is that I didn’t feel that at all. I felt, as if I was even a greater failure, I couldn’t even take my own life. But somehow I got through, I plodded through and, my mother started to spend more time with me thank goodness, she was worried about my marks in school, and she even went with me to, to Johns Hopkins University summer sessions to take mathematics again, and so that was, that was good and eventually I finished secondary school and, remarkably I was admitted to the University of Chicago, and I went there.

At that time I went there a little bit young, I was 17, and these feelings of inadequacy and what eventually would, would be identified by physicians as an underlying mental health condition, were exacerbated because I, left my family where I was already feeling inadequate and disconnected, and I was in a strange place. I got on a train in Baltimore and got off at a train station in Chicago, friends of the family picked me up and dropped me off in the room, I knew nobody, and that’s traumatic for any University age, boy or girl and, for me, I think I wasn’t ready for University at 17, and I think that I went crazy, I started to drink too much, I started to you know do things that put my life at risk. For example having much too much to drink, hard liquor and, because I was inherently very unhappy and, I was hanging out the fourth floor window of my residence hall, and my friends came to rescue me, and they spent the whole evening with me, which was very good because, I had so much alcohol in me that, you know if someone wasn’t watching over me that evening who knows what might have happened.

The next morning I remember somehow, probably it was the afternoon, I made my way to the lounge of that residence hall, and the faculty member that was there to be the, sort of the residence hall advisor, was very cross, and he said you’re going to go to the bathroom and you’ve made a mess, a biological mess, and you’re going to have to clean it up because we can’t ask anybody, to clean up after you so, so I went there and it wasn’t pleasant of course because I was hungover, and I had to clean up this mess I had made, and, but my friends were there, afterward and, they were both Christians, and they took me aside and they stuck with me for months, and they would start taking me to church. University of Chicago has a very large church called Rockefeller Chapel, and the other one is called Bond Chapel it’s a Catholic church. And, two, these two students one of them was a member of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and so I started finally to feel something, I felt, this amazing love from two Christians that I had never felt before. My family I didn’t mention, didn’t attend any church, had no faith, growing up, so I had no idea what was in the Bible, I had no idea about the love and the community that exists within churches. So they brought me into that experience, and introduced me to the Bible, to their, to their Priest, their Pastor, to their congregations, to InterVarsity small group sessions at the University, and they did it because, what they had learned was a Christian way of life in their churches. And they saw in me someone who was desperate, vulnerable, in danger, I was lucky I didn’t fall out of that fourth floor window.

Sarah Kift: Yeah.

Santa Ono: And they stuck with me and, I felt something amazing when I stepped into the church, I felt sort of a shiver go down my back, and every time I went into the church I knew virtually nothing about the Bible, but I felt touched, I felt I was in the presence of, of something remarkable, something very loving, like I had never experienced before. So they helped me get through University, and I went to Montreal, to go to graduate school, and I once again felt very lost, I didn’t know anybody, 80% of the people spoke French and I didn’t speak very much French, and sometimes experiments didn’t go very well, and I, those feelings of inadequacy and, and hopelessness became even more intense. There were moments where I felt very happy and excited, and moments that I felt totally withdrawn and just depressed.

Fortunately I was rescued once again by an angel, and this time that angel’s name was and is Wendy, then it was Wendy Yip and we would eventually get married, and she brought me to church, and I was baptised on a beautiful Sunday, Easter Sunday in Montreal, and I spent time with, with the Pastor of West Mount Baptist Church and, and he noticed that I was hurting inside, and I started to feel better because I felt, that people really cared about me, and I didn’t feel so lonely, but I still struggled off and on.

The second time I tried to take my own life was, after Wendy and I had just been married, in that church, in West Mount Baptist Church, I had finished my PHD, and I wouldn’t have finished my PHD were it not for Wendy, were it not for Jesus Christ. What happened was that after a postdoctoral fellowship I was offered a position, a faculty position at Johns Hopkins, and you know it sounds wonderful but it’s very stressful.

Sarah Kift: Very.                   

Santa Ono: I had to teach for the first time, I had to raise research funds for my laboratory, and it was very, very difficult at that time, the economy was terrible when I started my career, and worse than that I was separated from Wendy, I was in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins, and Wendy was still working in Boston Massachusetts, where I had done my fellowship, and she had finished law school, so we were separated by a very big distance, so the feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness came back crashing again, and that was the second time that I tried to take, take my life in Baltimore, it was before my kids were born. And finally, and I wasn’t going to church, and I now realise that going to church is, exceptionally important for me to remain grounded, and to, to have perspective in my life and, and so but I was alone, and things weren’t going well in my career, and I didn’t have many friends, and I felt tremendous pressure. So the second time, that I tried to take my life, was at that age, and, fortunately I don’t know why, I actually, I think a friend convinced me to go to the hospital, and I went to a hospital called Sheppard Pratt Hospital, which is a psychiatric hospital in Baltimore, affiliated with now I think Johns Hopkins, and I started to be diagnosed and, I was diagnosed with a mild form of manic depression.

So that’s why I was very happy sometimes, so people, you know if you asked people at the time they would say, what’s Santa Ono like, they’d say oh he’s really, really enthusiastic and extroverted, and that was the manic part, but then I would then revert to, tremendously withdrawn, hopeless, depressed, not even able to get out of bed over several days. Not even able to eat sometimes, that was the depth of my despair, and so I was put on medication, and went through several rounds of psychotherapy, and started to take care of my nutrition, and Wendy came to Baltimore, and so gradually I got better, and I would say that, now for quite some time I’ve been pretty much symptom free, and I don’t have to take medication anymore, and I credit Jesus Christ and, and Wendy and, and trying to take care of myself has, really been central to my survival, so that’s essentially my story.

Sarah Kift: I’m very moved by that, thank you for sharing so candidly.

There are many pathways to recovery, and the goal isn’t necessarily to be off medication, but to be healthy, functioning and thriving in ones life. Mental health challenges can be managed in many different ways, including the right medication as well as therapy, programs, lifestyle activities, family and friends and strong community support. For many people bipolar requires lifelong treatment. I know for myself, and the particular mental health struggle I have, medication has dramatically changed my life for the better, and I don’t anticipate ever going off of it. I had to overcome years of self-stigma and fear to even start medication, but I don’t know what my life would look like now without it.

Part of our role to support each other and stomp out stigma around mental health issues, is to encourage and support recovery with self-direction and dignity, what might work for one person will not work for someone else, and all of our recovery journeys are unique, and worth cheering on.

Some things that jumped out at me when I was listening, you talked about Jesus and faith, and people that came alongside of you, and then you also talked about being connected with, medical help and medication, and then you talked about belonging. So it was, people who were connected to you, who were your anchors when things were hard, and so how do you see those things working together now in your life?

Santo Ono: Well now I’m a very lucky man, I have Wendy in my life every day, and I have two wonderful children, and I have lots of friends, and I’m in a situation where I’m constantly interacting with people, amazing people, amazing students and faculty and staff. I’m able to go to multiple places of worship in Vancouver, and I truly feel that there are Pastors that care about me, I really think that Ken Shigematsu actually cares about me, and Craig O’Brien of Origin Church, so, so my situation now is totally different from when I felt alone, and I don’t think it’s an accident that the people, first two students who rescued me were Christian. I think it’s because they are Christian that they took time out of their own lives, to be with me that whole evening, but even more than that they took time out of their own lives to bring me to church, and they took time out of their lives to drive me to the suburbs of Chicago, so I could experience church, and if they hadn’t done that, and if they hadn’t introduced me to, to small groups at InterVarsity, and InterVarsity has become a very big part of my life, and that’s why I’m so passionate about, having those sorts of opportunities for individuals to find Christ, or if it’s some other faith, whatever faith it might be, that’s why for me as the leader of a secular University it’s so important that students, have an opportunity to find themselves, and to, to find places where they can worship, or question their faith, you know the University years, are extraordinary years, but they’re also extraordinarily stressful years, and my own personal experience, my lived experience, is not that uncommon, about one in five or in some Universities one in four, University students have the same experiences that I had, and I don’t, I don’t want them to have those same experiences, I want them to thrive, I want them to be, have the peace of mind and to feel loved, so they can succeed and go to the classroom or the laboratory, or the field if they’re a student athlete, I want them to experience all the upside of being at an intensive prestigious University, that’s what I want and, but I see so many people like, like me, that are in Universities around the world.

Sarah Kift: And you’ve been doing a lot of work, in your various roles in different institutions to kind of help with that, do you want to talk a little bit about what makes you happy, in terms of helping other people who may have been in the same shoes that you were in?

Santa Ono: Well the first thing I’ll say is that it’s, it’s an ongoing project, it’s a mammoth project.

Sarah Kift: Yes.

Santa Ono: Because if you think about what I just said, one in five or one in four, students, faculty and staff having their own mental health challenges. If you see what’s happening on social media with Bell Let’s Talk, or in my case, one of the privileges but also one of the painful aspects of being a leader of a large University, which is essentially a small city, is that it’s, you encounter it all the time. You know I had to, to go to an event, which I was happy to attend, where a mother and father, and the teammates of the Varsity Hockey women’s hockey team, asked me to come and honour the goalie who was a medical student at UBC, to honour her life because she had taken her own life, even though she was an outstanding student, an outstanding athlete, to go to the UBC Faculty of Medicine, is very difficult, and, and to play as a starting goalie of the UBC Varity ice hockey team, you have to be quite talented, so this is an incredibly gifted individual, who it wasn’t clear to, to her parents or her teammates, or her friends that she was struggling, so in some cases for example myself, I think it was probably quite clear to people around me that I was in trouble, but there are other students and staff and faculty where, they appear perfectly normal but inside they have demons and they’re struggling.

So if you look around your classroom or your residence hall, and you see students or staff or faculty that are struggling, it’s an underrepresentation of the numbers of individuals who are actually struggling, because some of them it’s just not clear, and there’s a stigma about talking about it, so the reason why I’ve been motivated to try to do something, is because God has put me in a place where I can do something. But I have to admit that, whatever I try to do is, is, is just a partial solution, because so many people are affected, so I want to talk a little bit about the kinds of things that we’re trying to do.

First of all, I’m looking at what we’re doing here at UBC, and when I first arrived, and it’s still true today, we didn’t have adequate resources, adequate numbers of counsellors, adequate numbers of psychiatrists and psychologists, to deal with the volume of the problem. And so one of the things that was relatively easy to do, was to allocate more resource, so we allocated $2.5million a year more, to hire more psychiatrists and, and psychologists and counsellors. We have to have more spaces, where students can actually go, in a completely confidential manner to have conversations about their wellbeing, and so we’re going to be building more spaces for that to happen, both centrally within the core of the University, and also within the residence halls. The reason why that’s important is that, usually people that are experiencing mental health challenges, it doesn’t necessarily happen Monday through Friday 9am to 5pm.

Sarah Kift: No.

Santa Ono: Often it’s a first year student who has done very, very well up until entering UBC, and it’s just before their first set of exams, where for the first time in their life they might fail, or right after they receive their marks, and they have had a 94 average up until UBC, and they come to this huge place, some of them feel lost, some of them feel disconnected from their families, and then they get their first grade which is not a 94, and then you can see it in the students, when they experience failure for the first time, so it’s a very vulnerable period of time, so we’ve invested in numbers of staff, in places, we’ve tried to invest in having people 24/7 on site in the halls of residence, not knowing when a student will be most affected and most in need. So we’re trying those sorts of things. But one of the things that I, I realised in thinking about my own life story, is that it begins much earlier than University. I told you that for me I tried to take my life at 14, I needed help then, and the fact that, I was able to succeed was, because I was lucky that in my view, God was there, unbeknownst to me, putting people there to take care of me when he saw that I was in trouble, but I think it would be even better if we had a stronger system of support, in our primary and secondary schools, because if I speak to the Principals and Headmasters and Superintendents across Canada, and across the United States, they all say that this is a crisis, there are too many youngsters that are struggling too early, and we know that if we don’t provide them support, at the early stages, that just with the case with myself, if it’s left unchecked it’ll get worse and worse, and so I think that whatever we do at Universities, that we have to start earlier, and so the other thing I’m trying to do, is to work with Superintendents across Canada. I spoke to all of the Superintendents and Ministers of Education across, of each province at the Vancouver Convention Centre, several months ago, really asking them to, to provide or allocate more resources for counseling within our secondary schools, and I’ve been trying to, to encourage more schools to adopt the mental health literacy program that’s coming out of UBC.

Sarah Kift: Yeah.

Santa Ono: And I guess the last thing I want to say is that I’ve been trying to raise money, and over the next several months to years, I hope to collaborate with a pianist called Julie Lowe, who’s a pianist, a gifted pianist at the Vancouver Academy of Music, who confided in me that she also, has had significant mental health challenges, precipitated by life events, and she approached me and said wouldn’t it be wonderful, if we tried to address the stigma of talking about this, in a concern, because I play the cello and she plays the piano, and what we’re going to do, and hopefully people will come, is to play music from composers, who are very famous, like Schumann or Mozart, or Bach that were extraordinarily talented and successful, but to say that they also had challenges, and the idea is to try to eliminate the stigma, that just because you’re having challenges doesn’t mean that, you can’t be a remarkable composer or a pianist, or whatever, hockey player.     

Sarah Kift: Yeah.

Santa Ono: And so we want to do that, to try to break the stigma but we also, want to do that to try to raise money, to help more schools have more counsellors, to help more Universities have the kinds of programs that our students need.

Sarah Kift: I’m looking forward to going to that concert. I think a lot of people will come.

Santa Ono: Thank you very much.   

Sarah Kift: So just as we wrap up here, thinking back to the times when you were suffering, what would you say to somebody who’s just on the journey of trying to help, you know how would you encourage them, like we can picture a student right, so say you’re a student here and you notice a friend of yours, a classmate, a professor whose having a hard time, or somethings just not right, what would you encourage them, if you could give them just that first step into being a support for mental health, what would you say?

Santa Ono: Well the first thing is that there are programs that will help you, really try to understand best practice, because it’s very challenging. I’ve seen many circumstances where young people try to help a peer, they have no clue what to do.

Sarah Kift: Yeah.

Santa Ono: And, and that’s to be expected, most people aren’t trained as psychiatrists or psychologists, and most young people are dealing with their own changes in their lives, but there are programs, there are clubs on campus, there’s something called mental health first aid, where you can actually be trained on what to do, so my first advice would be to seek out those opportunities, to educate yourself, to become literate about mental health, and if there are any questions about what those resources are, they’re available on the UBC website.

Sarah Kift: Ok, good.

Santa Ono: But they can also be accessed from CAMH, Canadian Association for Mental Health, so a lot of those resources are accessible you just go to those websites. But, beyond actually looking at those resources, I would say, the most powerful thing that you can provide someone whose in trouble like I was, is to just be there, to just listen, to just make it clear that you love them, because that’s usually the biggest problem, to not try to provide too much advice, because that requires that you really understand the root cause of a problem. If someone were to speak to me at the age of 14, I probably wouldn’t have had the confidence, or the self-understanding to be able to say why I was suffering, and as I said even today I can’t, I don’t feel free to talk about what happened to me, which was the root cause of what happened, so as a peer you can’t really, you don’t know the right questions to ask, and you might not be able to get the answer, in some cases it really requires, like in my case a professional, to go through psychotherapy with that person, but as a peer you can be there, you can listen, don’t try to say I understand what you feel because you don’t, and don’t try to advise because you don’t know what the root cause of the problem is, just be there, listen and refer them to a professional.

Sarah Kift: Santa, thank you.

Santa Ono: You’re welcome.

Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries exists to equip the Church to be a sanctuary for all people, at all stages of their mental wellness journey. May this podcast encourage you to create safe space for your own story, and the stories of others as well as create change in communities that stigmatize those suffering with mental health challenges.

The Sanctuary Course is a small group resource designed to help initiate and guide conversations about mental health and faith. It is a starting point, creating a base of shared knowledge from which churches can explore the next steps. Perhaps most importantly through the simple act of talking openly about mental health, the course helps churches begin to create safe spaces for people to share their mental health stories and receive support in community.

Each theme in the course is explored from a psychological, social, and theological perspective, and each session is accompanied by a compelling film focused on an individual story, a person of faith whose journeyed through mental health challenges. I’m your host Sarah Kift and I’m thankful for the people who help make this episode happen, postproduction and editing by Jonathan Kift, music by the artist Crash by Car by and all funding and support by the team at Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries. This podcast is released under creative commons attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives 4.0 license. Don’t change it or sell it but please share it all you like.